Whether or not the United States can fairly be called "stingy" in its response to Asia's tsunami disaster, when it comes to tackling the ongoing crisis of hunger, poverty and disease in the developing world, rich nations aren't keeping their promises.
In early December, a report by Oxfam, an international development organization, found that the foreign aid budgets of the world's wealthy countries as a share of their national income have plunged since the mid-1960s. At their current rate of aid spending it will take more than a half-century for rich nations to make a dent in the chronic poverty in the developing world.
Though President Bush marginally increased the amount of aid earmarked for HIV/AIDS and disease-prevention programs in Africa and the Caribbean in 2004, the United States still ranks dead last among the top 22 wealthy nations in overall foreign aid giving as a percentage of national income. Even that is misleading, for the bulk of that U.S. aid money goes to a relatively small number of loyal allies, with Israel and Egypt grabbing the lion's share. Overall, U.S. foreign aid spending in 2003 was a fraction of what it spent on Iraq.
Furthermore, U.S. foreign aid dollars often come with strings attached. Aid-dependent nations are often forced to spend the relatively scant aid dollars on weapons, manufactured goods, agricultural products and drugs from American corporations. This has been especially galling for African nations, where the AIDS plague has reached pandemic proportions. They can't buy less costly generic drugs made by companies in other countries.
Poor African and Asian countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, that were hardest hit by the tsunami are also deep in hock to international lending institutions. They must spend a disproportionate share of their national income making debt-servicing payments to the World Bank and IMF on loans.
Bush officials, though, call any criticism of U.S. aid efforts nonsense. In 2003, they say, U.S. aid to developing nations totaled nearly $16 billion. That's more than double what second-place Japan gave in aid, and more than all other rich nations combined. Toss in the nearly $250 billion that U.S. private charities and non-governmental agencies gave to poor nations, and Bush officials say that the United States is the world's most generous aid giver.
The argument is valid if generosity is measured strictly by who gives and the total dollars given. But at the Earth Summit in Brazil a decade ago, the world's 22 richest nations, including the United States, pledged to give nearly 1 percent of their national income to poor nations. Five nations kept their pledge, the United States not among them. If the United States and the other nations had come anywhere near their target figure, billions more in aid dollars would have gone to poor nations. These nations could have waged real battles against poverty, hunger and disease. They could have built more roads, schools and hospitals and increased their agricultural productivity.
These are self-sustaining development projects that are the key to them breaking the stranglehold of foreign dependency. With the added dollars, Thailand, Indonesia and the other tsunami-ravaged countries could have developed their own early warning systems. They would have the means to provide speedier and greater relief and emergency services when disasters strike.
Though private aid dollars have helped fill some of the aid slack of rich nations, this should not free these governments from their obligation to fulfill their pledge to help poor countries. Aid from the U.S. and the other wealthy nations need not be considered a handout, or given out of pity, but more appropriate strings could be attached. Public money can be used to pressure these governments to crack down on corruption and carry out democratic reforms. The developed world has a vital stake in helping build stable, democratic governments in poor, war-ravaged nations.
The United States and other rich nations must be applauded for their outpouring of dollars for food, medical supplies and support teams for the tsunami-stricken countries. They proved that when the world watches, they can respond quickly and effectively to a monumental human tragedy. But it shouldn't take a tragedy, or the eyes of the world, for wealthy nations to do more to alleviate human suffering.