At Large

The Politics of Giving

American generosity is nothing to sneeze at.

By 1.2.05

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What a surprise. The earthquake and resulting tsunami that devastated countries bordering the Indian Ocean has been used as an excuse by U.N. bureaucrats to castigate "rich Western nations" -- and particularly the United States -- as "stingy." The U.N.'s Jan Egeland, and like-minded commentators, used statistics by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to demonstrate this point. Of the wealthiest countries in the world, none give more than 1% of their GDP in foreign development aid. Egeland's Norway had the best showing at .92% and down at the bottom were the "stingy" Americans at .14%.

Like most statistics, however, you need to delve into how these are calculated to get a truly accurate picture. For instance, even before ex-President Clinton, in typical New Democrat form, started bad-mouthing the sitting U.S. president in the foreign media, the United States had taken the lead in providing and coordinating relief efforts. Prime in this effort was not the initial $15 million in aid (quickly increased to $35 million -- a figure that surely will go higher just as the death toll has) but the commitment of resources from the United States Armed Forces. As of this writing, this commitment includes 6 C-130 transport planes and 9 P-3 aircraft for observation and reconnaissance. Marines from Okinawa are deploying (with the cooperation of the government of Thailand) to Utapao, Thailand. The Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Force (including 25 helicopters, 2,100 Marines, and at least 5 ships that can produce 90,000 gallons for fresh water a day) have moved toward the affected areas to help provide relief. The value of this assistance dwarfs the millions in committed cash aid.

Such use of military personnel and equipment, however, is not counted in the OECD's calculations. Nor is direct food aid. Nor is aid from private citizens or charitable organizations. Nor is development aid to Iraq. Nor is the New York office space provided to whiny U.N. bureaucrats. The OECD only counts direct cash assistance from governments.

Perhaps a better way to measure generosity would be to state a country's aid to poorer nations as a percentage of the graft its public officials received from the U.N.'s "Oil for Food" program.

The United States government in 2003 gave $16.2 billion in development aid (the way OECD counts such aid). Even excluding the other ways in which the U.S. government gives aid, there is no other country in the world that gave close to that (Japan was a distant second). And calculating giving as a percentage of a country's GDP is almost always going to skew the analysis to make the richest nations look the "stingiest" simply because of the mathematics involved in comparing enormously varying GDPs.

Another problem with the OECD's analysis is that it assumes that everyone living in a "rich" country is rich. We know this is not true. Just months ago, the richest presidential ticket in history, John Kerry and John Edwards, were continually reminding us, for instance, that there are "two Americas." In 2002, Americans gave $241 billion to charities. That, by the way, Jan Egeland, was 2.3% of GDP. Not bad given that according to the Democratic Party this was in the midst of "the worst economy since the Great Depression."

Unlike the high-tax European welfare states, American giving has traditionally been dominated by private giving. In 2002, this $241 billion went to help the poor, to aid victims of hurricanes, fires, and other natural disasters, for medical research, for environmental causes, and an estimated $5 billion went for assistance and development programs outside of the United States.

But all this talk about who gives the most to poor countries misses the point. As is also true for U.S. domestic policy, the point should be the effectiveness, rather than the amount, of the spending. Much that the U.S. contributes, particularly in response to natural disasters, comes in the form of transport and logistical support courtesy of the U.S. military, direct food aid, and private contributions to organizations on the ground providing services directly to the particular community. This type of aid, ironically not counted in the OECD's calculations, is typically the most effective. Often the least effective is the type that Jan Egeland and the OECD trumpet -- direct government-to-government aid. Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Yasser Arafat's widow, Suha, grew rich on the latter form of aid, but most Haitians and Palestinians still live in squalor.

Shortly before September 11, 2001, the U.N. sponsored a conference in Durban, South Africa on racism. The columnist Mark Steyn more correctly dubbed it "The World Conference Against Whitey." At this conference, some of the most brutal Thugocracies in the world called on the United States, Britain, and other rich Western European nations to "apologize unreservedly for their crimes against humanity." Oh, and yes, to send more money. Development aid, however, has never brought economic development and prosperity to the types of corrupt dictatorships that make up the bulk of countries that demand more aid from the West.

As a great nation, we should not get too bent out of shape about the rhetoric at the Durban conference or about the current ignorant criticisms about our supposed "stinginess." Instead we should focus on using our resources effectively. As a start, we should reconsider our support of the U.N.. Just think of the good we could do if instead of underwriting that 2001 conference in Durban, or paying to provide New York office space to the U.N. delegations from Cuba, Zimbabwe, or Syria, we used that money to help promote private enterprise and economic freedom in the Third World. As John Lennon might say, just imagine.

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About the Author
Brandon Crocker is the chief financial officer of a commercial real estate development and management company in San Diego.