The stingy giant

Posted: Dec 30, 2004 12:00 AM

United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland quickly backpedaled from his assertion Monday that wealthy nations -- which pay his salary and fund his work -- are "stingy" when it comes to aiding the relief effort following Asia's deadly tsunami. The next day, Egeland claimed he was "misinterpreted." Later, he said that he wished he hadn't said what he said. No lie. In one press conference, Egeland, former state secretary in Norway's foreign ministry, managed to confirm the popular American belief that the more the U.S. government spends on foreign aid, the more international ingrates it creates.
As President Bush noted Wednesday, the United States contributed 40 percent of aid relief for the world's emergencies in 2004. That 40 percent makes Americans stingy?

 It's called: You can't win.

 To be fair, Egeland didn't single out the United States as "stingy." What he said was: "(I)t is remarkable that we have no country up to the 1 percent line of foreign assistance in general and we have, I think, three Scandinavians that have exceeded and Holland, the 0.7 line of gross national income for assistance."

 The United Nations, you see, has decreed that developed countries should give 1 percent of their gross national income to foreign humanitarian aid.

 Egeland added: "And if actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy really. I don't think that is very generous." To make his point, Egeland explained that Americans and Europeans want to pay higher taxes: "Politicians do not understand their own populations because all the populations in the United States, in the European Union, in Norway, which is No. 1 (in foreign aid) in the world, want to give more as voters, as taxpayers. People say we should give what we give now or more. Politicians and pundits believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."

 A few facts apply here. The United States spends about 0.14 percent of gross domestic product on foreign aid, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That figure, however, excludes generous private donations -- $33 billion in 2000 -- far more than the $10 billion in government aid.

 U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios told the Associated Press that U.S. emergency relief rose to $24 billion in 2003. And Secretary of State Colin Powell expects U.S. aid for tsunami relief to eventually exceed $1 billion.

 (Now, you'd think that $1 billion figure would be a big story. But in a show of unabashed solipsism -- in a world where what you say always trumps what you actually do -- Beltway pundits are more interested in the fact that Bush didn't hold a press conference on the tsunami until Wednesday than in the fact that the United States is talking about spending $1 billion to help tsunami victims.)

 This year, the United States gave more than $826 million to the United Nations' World Food Programme -- that was some $100 million more than the European Union and its countries combined -- despite the European Union's larger population and marginally bigger gross domestic product.

 Meanwhile, American taxpayers have bankrolled a defense apparatus that protects people around the globe. Our Betters in Europe should think twice before criticizing U.S. levels of humanitarian aid when Americans are carrying their water when it comes to defense. (Who was it that had to send troops into the Balkans because Europe couldn't manage a problem in its own backyard? The United States.)

 As for Americans wanting to pay higher taxes to provide more foreign aid, I think it is Egeland who doesn't understand voters. I won't speak for Europeans, but most Americans I know would rather keep the tax rate where it is and write personal checks to the humanitarian organization of their choice.

 Many Americans simply don't trust the United Nations. There was the U.N. oil-for-food program that scandalously funneled money to Saddam Hussein -- and that money was used against the U.S.-led coalition sent to overthrow him.

 There's the United Nations' reputation for fecklessness and, really, an alarming lack of seriousness. On the one hand, the United Nations and Egeland are engaging in heroic work as they try to save lives and restore order after natural disasters. But Egeland's rhetoric exhibits a lack of understanding as to who the real enemy is. The United Nations shows little backbone when it comes to confronting evil -- Hussein, Arab militias in Darfur -- but lots of cheek when it has to deal with its largest (not to mention well-intentioned) donor.