January 5, 2005
What it means to be generous
The outpouring of cash that Americans are donating to tsunami relief organizations is getting a lot of praise in the press, and rightfully so. The Christian Science Monitor goes as far as to say that giving has undergone a "profound shift" in the US, as regular people reach into their pockets to help the reconstruction of already poor nations, ravaged by a tragic natural event.
The CSM article suggests that perhaps Americans want to change the current world-view of our nation, to convince the rest of the world that Americans are compassionate, not just well-armed. This is certainly an understandable desire, and I'm pleasantly surprised that many Americans have even noticed that our position as a moral leader has taken a battering in recent years. Or even over the last 40 years. Regardless, I'm happy that Americans realize that we're unliked these days, and that they've tried to do something about it by giving money to tsunami victims.
But let's not get too carried away with the self-congratulatory pride. As Nicholas Kristof points out in his Op-Ed today, America is still relatively far down on the generosity ranking when our enormous wealth is considered. Foreign aid to poor countries in general is still only 0.1% of our annual budget, even though the wealthiest members of the UN collectively decided that foreign aid should constitute 0.7% of their budgets. Many Americans think that we give around 24% of our budget to foreign aid, demonstrating that the general public has literally no idea that our supposed generosity toward poor countries might be a lot of money, but it is still woefully inadequate and, yes, stingy. Kristof also points out that the number of tsunami casualties roughly equals the number of people worldwide who die every month from easily preventable diseases like malaria.
We Americans also tend to have very short memories. A lot of people are donating to tsunami relief efforts, and that's great, but many donors are stipulating that their cash go ONLY to the immediate needs of tsunami victims, as though there were no other people suffering from disasters in the world. Remember Sudan? Remember Afghanistan and Iraq? The organizations that are working in South East Asia are mostly all working in these other places too, and have been all along. Doctors Without Borders has notified potential donors that they have enough money to accomplish their goals in the tsunami-affected countries--no more tsunami donations, please! They do encourage donors to give to their ongoing relief efforts all over the world. Much like some donors to 9/11 relief funds got all outraged when the Red Cross used some donations for long-term relief, instead of immediately giving all of it to victims' families, many tsunami relief donors seem to be equally short-sighted.
Who do we want to help here, victims of this disaster, or our own international image? It's wonderful and generous if you want to give money to these relief efforts, but take five minutes and make sure you're giving to an organization that is doing the work on the ground, and still needs more support. Give2Asia is part of The Asia Foundation, and is working with local Asian organizations to use contributions for both short-term relief and long-term recovery. Contributions given out of guilt are certainly just as valuable as those given for more altruistic reasons, but it's important to remember that there is great need in a great many countries that will still be there long after this new crisis is over.
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