President Bush defended American generosity Wednesday, even as his administration figures out how to pay for more help beyond the $35 million it has already promised to tsunami victims in Asia.
In his first remarks since the weekend disaster that so far has killed more than 76,000, Bush — like some in his administration previously — took umbrage at a U.N. official’s suggestion that the world’s richest nations were “stingy,” and indicated much more is expected to be spent to help the victims.
“Well, I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed,” Bush said from his Texas ranch. “We’re a very generous, kindhearted nation, and, you know, what you’re beginning to see is a typical response from America.”
Bush cites last year's relief aid
Bush noted that the United States provided $2.4 billion “in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. ... That’s 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year.”
But the journey from the $35 million to potentially $1 billion or more in help for the tens of thousands of latest victims is fraught with bureaucratic twists.
First, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which distributes foreign aid, will have to ask for more money, since the initial $35 million aid package drained its emergency relief fund, said Andrew Natsios, the agency’s administrator.
“We just spent it,” Natsios said in an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press. “We’ll be talking to the (White House) budget office ... (about) what to do at this point.”
Natsios said the Pentagon also is spending tens of millions to mobilize an additional relief operation, with C-130 transport planes winging their way from Dubai to Indonesia with tents, blankets, food and water bags.
As of Wednesday, dozens of countries and relief groups had pledged at least $261 million in help for South and East Asia, said the Geneva-based U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“There’s no doubt there’ll be more than that,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. officer in charge of coordinating the international response from Switzerland. “The size of this thing is a challenge.”
John Paul II calls for assistance
Pope John Paul II on Wednesday renewed his call for global aid for victims of the tsunami.
“News that keeps coming from Asia increasingly shows the enormous scale of the catastrophe that hit in particular India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand,” the pope said Wednesday in a message read by an aide during his weekly audience at the Vatican.
“In the Christmas atmosphere of these days, I invite all the faithful and all people of good will to contribute generously ... toward people who have already been through a severe trial and are now exposed to the risk of an epidemic,” he said.
Generosity depends on yardstick
Measuring the generosity of the United States depends on the yardstick.
The U.S. government is always near the top in total humanitarian aid dollars — even before private donations are counted — but it finishes near the bottom of the list of rich countries when that money is compared to gross national product.
Such figures were what prompted Jan Egeland — the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator — to challenge the giving of rich nations.
“We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries,” said Egeland, the former head of the Norwegian Red Cross. “And it is beyond me, why are we so stingy, really. ... Even Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become.”
Egeland told reporters Tuesday his complaint wasn’t directed at any nation in particular.
But Secretary of State Colin Powell clearly was annoyed while making the rounds of the morning television news shows Tuesday. He said it remains to be determined what the eventual U.S. contribution will be, but that he agrees with estimates that the total international aid effort “will run into the billions of dollars.”
Natsios was quick to point out Tuesday that foreign assistance for development and emergency relief rose from $10 billion in President Clinton’s last year to $24 billion under President Bush in 2003. Powell said U.S. assistance for this week’s earthquake and tsunami alone will eventually exceed $1 billion.
Stingy notion ‘simply not true’
“The notion that the United States is not generous is simply not true, factually,” Natsios said.
The United States uses the most common measure of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 rich nations that counts development aid.
By that measure, the United States spent almost $15.8 billion for “official development assistance” to developing countries in 2003. Next closest was Japan, at $8.9 billion.
That doesn’t include billions more the United States spends in other areas, such as AIDS and HIV programs and other U.N. assistance.
Measured another way, as a percentage of gross national product, the OECD’s figures on development aid show that as of April, none of the world’s richest countries donated even 1 percent of its gross national product. Norway was highest, at 0.92 percent; the United States was last, at 0.14 percent.
Another way to measure
Another yardstick of U.S. largesse stems from a comparison of how American money is used elsewhere in the world.
In hearings last month, the U.S. military reported to Congress that it is now spending more than $5.8 billion each month — an average of $8,055,555 an hour — in Iraq. So the $35 million in aid destined for the tsunami victims is equal to what the Pentagon spends on the average morning in Iraq — about four hours.
Put another way, the $35 million is less than the amount the U.S. military spent during the six hours it took for the tsunami to cross the Indian Ocean on Sunday.
President Bush mentioned the $2.4 billion that the U.S. provided this year in worldwide aid. That amount pales in comparison with the $13.6 billion that Bush requested and received in supplemental appropriations for the hurricanes that hit the southeastern United States and the Caribbean earlier this year.
Of that amount, $100 million, less than 1 percent, went to other countries for their hurricane relief efforts.