December 30, 2004
President Bush finally roused himself yesterday from his
vacation in Crawford, Tex., to telephone his sympathy to
the leaders of India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia,
and to speak publicly about the devastation of Sunday's
tsunamis in Asia. He also hurried to put as much distance
as possible between himself and America's initial measly
aid offer of $15 million, and he took issue with an earlier
statement by the United Nations' emergency relief
coordinator, Jan Egeland, who had called the overall aid
efforts by rich Western nations "stingy." "The person who
made that statement was very misguided and ill informed,"
the president said.
We beg to differ. Mr. Egeland was right on target. We hope
Secretary of State Colin Powell was privately embarrassed
when, two days into a catastrophic disaster that hit 12 of
the world's poorer countries and will cost billions of
dollars to meliorate, he held a press conference to say
that America, the world's richest nation, would contribute
$15 million. That's less than half of what Republicans plan
to spend on the Bush inaugural festivities.
The American aid figure for the current disaster is now $35
million, and we applaud Mr. Bush's turnaround. But $35
million remains a miserly drop in the bucket, and is in
keeping with the pitiful amount of the United States budget
that we allocate for nonmilitary foreign aid. According to
a poll, most Americans believe the United States spends 24
percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually
spends well under a quarter of 1 percent.
Bush administration officials help create that perception
gap. Fuming at the charge of stinginess, Mr. Powell pointed
to disaster relief and said the United States "has given
more aid in the last four years than any other nation or
combination of nations in the world." But for development
aid, America gave $16.2 billion in 2003; the European Union
gave $37.1 billion. In 2002, those numbers were $13.2
billion for America, and $29.9 billion for Europe.
Making things worse, we often pledge more money than we
actually deliver. Victims of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, a
year ago are still living in tents because aid, including
ours, has not materialized in the amounts pledged. And back
in 2002, Mr. Bush announced his Millennium Challenge
account to give African countries development assistance of
up to $5 billion a year, but the account has yet to
disperse a single dollar.
Mr. Bush said yesterday that the $35 million we've now
pledged "is only the beginning" of the United States'
recovery effort. Let's hope that is true, and that this
time, our actions will match our promises.