U.S. is the world's Scrooge

Published December 28, 2004 9:27PM (EST)

"The United States is not stingy," Colin Powell said on CNN this morning. "We are the greatest contributor to international relief efforts in the world."

Powell was responding to comments yesterday by Jan Egeland, the United Nation's emergency relief coordinator, who suggested that wealthy countries' initial pledges of assistance in response to the Asian disaster had been insufficient. "It is beyond me, why are we so stingy, really," Egeland said. So far, the U.S. has pledged $35 million in relief aid for victims of the earthquake and tsunamis, and Powell insisted today that the U.S. will give much more -- possibly into the billions -- as the scope of the disaster becomes better known.

Let's hope so, because as it is, despite Powell's assurances, the rest of the world regards the U.S. as a heartless Scrooge -- and for good reason. A couple weeks ago Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist who heads the United Nation's Millennium Project to reduce poverty, hunger, and disease in developing nations, stopped by Salon's offices to discuss how the United States was shirking its responsibilities to the world's poorest people. In much of the world, Sachs told us, there remains the impression that the U.S. is interested in helping people only when it has something to gain -- and these days we only engage with the rest of the world on anti-terrorism policy, more often than not through war. The United States contributes about a tenth of one percent of its income in aid to poor countries -- an abysmal rate that falls below that of all industrialized nations, and is dwarfed by the giving rate of Canada (0.26 percent), Germany (0.28 percent), the United Kingdom (0.34 percent), and France (0.42 percent).

What's worse, this situation doesn't seem to be improving. Indeed, in just the past two months, the Bush administration has quietly reduced its commitments to global anti-poverty programs, cutting its contributions to groups like Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services by as much as $100 million. The move prompted the New York Times to ask in an editorial: "The administration can conjure up $87 billion for the fighting in Iraq, but can it really not come up with more than $15.6 billion -- our overall spending on development assistance in 2002 -- to help stop an 8-year-old AIDS orphan in Cameroon from drinking sewer water or to buy a mosquito net for an infant in Sierra Leone?"

When the state of Florida suffered four hurricanes this summer, the Bush administration quickly and admirably pried open the federal wallet, and so far Floridians have received more than $3 billion in federal and state disaster assistance. Nobody's saying that Floridians didn't deserve that aid; they surely did. But what happened in Asia over the weekend may turn out to be one of the worst natural disasters in human history. More than 40,000 people are now believed dead, and officials fear that the toll may surpass 60,000. A good test of the Bush administration's generosity -- not to mention the generosity of all Americans -- is whether our government can now muster as much money for far-off foreigners as we could for Americans in an all-important swing state.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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