HONOLULU — After the tsunami ravaged the shores of a dozen nations bordering the Indian Ocean, Americans were accused of being “stingy” in their response — an allegation that does not stand up in the glare of hard fact.
During a visit to the stricken region, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that a majority of the victims were in Islamic nations and hoped the American relief effort would “give the Muslim world and the rest of the world . . . an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action.”
The criticism started with a senior U.N. official, Jan Egeland, who suggested that the United States and other economically advanced nations had been “stingy” in their initial relief efforts. That assessment reverberated across Europe and Asia and the U.S. itself.
The New York Times editorialized that it considered President George W. Bush’s initial response to have been stingy, which generated an outpouring of letters agreeing and disagreeing. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seemed to reflect other regional papers with a headline: “Do we give enough?”
The criticism continued even after the American relief mission got under way. A New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, wrote: “When grieving victims intrude onto our TV screens, we dig into our pockets and provide the massive, heartwarming response that we’re now displaying in Asia; the rest of the time, we’re tightwads who turn away as people die in far greater numbers.”
Even before the tsunami, American individuals, foundations and corporations gave $238 billion in 2001 to churches, hospitals, medical research and other charities — at home and abroad. That sum was up to $241 billion in each of 2002 and 2003, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Those annual donations were larger than the gross domestic product — the sum of all goods and services produced by a nation — of, for example, Norway, Denmark, Poland or Saudi Arabia. Indeed, American private charitable donations would constitute the world’s 21st largest economy.
This giving is encouraged as public policy, in contrast to many other nations, by laws that permit taxpayers to deduct charitable contributions from the income on which they pay taxes. That applies to aid for tsunami relief.
What makes the shock of the tsunami more devastating than other natural or man-made horrors is that rolled from the eastern to the western edge of the vast Indian Ocean. The death toll of 160,000 and rising and the displacement of 3 million to 5 million survivors exceeds the 100,000 who perished in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 and the 139,000 who died in a 1991 typhoon in Bangladesh.
Once the extent of the tsunami’s destruction had become evident, the U.S. pledged $350 million in relief assistance and deployed 20 warships and a Coast Guard ship across the Indian Ocean with 13,000 people aboard and ashore.
Critics wondered aloud why the armed forces were employed but were quickly silenced when marines landed to erect temporary shelters, engineers got water systems working, and medical specialists started treating the injured and starved. No one else could have done this.
Most important, 46 U.S. helicopters, the world’s most versatile vehicle, started ferrying supplies from ship to shore and inland to survivors and carrying the injured and homeless to medical aid stations and shelters. The number of choppers is expected to rise to 90.
The cost to the American taxpayers is hard to measure. The commander of U.S. forces in the affected region, Adm. Thomas Fargo, could not give reporters in Washington an estimate but asserted: “The American taxpayers made an investment in a very solid and robust military capability that has a wide range of uses. And we’re demonstrating the value of that investment today.”
Bush has asked his father, former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, and former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to lead private and corporate fundraising efforts. That may have been politically astute but probably not necessary as nongovernmental relief organizations have reported a unmeasured flood of donations.
Australia, Japan and Germany have pledged sizable sums for relief, but China, which has been seeking to expand its influence in Asia, has promised only $60 million and fielded a medical team of 35 to Indonesia. Other Asian nations have pledged lesser amounts.
Islamic nations have not done much despite the suffering of Muslims. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which is believed to have provided considerable funding for Muslim terrorists, had pledged only $10 million by midweek while other Islamic nations had either put up lesser sums or have not been heard from.
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