Tsunami Aid and Comfort


News organizations of all stripes have acknowledged the scope of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, from the devastating photo on page 1 of Tuesday’s New York Times to the five pages of coverage in the New York Post. But tragedies tend to expose our true natures, and in morning show interviews of Secretary of State Colin Powell on Tuesday, anchors revealed something about their priorities.

The topic of interest was the U.S. decision to immediately offer $15 million—or the cost of one F-15 fighter—in aid to the stricken countries. Is that really enough to assist countries that must not only find, identify, and bury more than 40,000 bodies, but also treat the injured, house those whose shelters have been destroyed, and try to prevent disease?

The first question CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith asked Powell was: “Well, we heard that number, $15 million, yesterday. I honestly thought that doesn’t seem like very much money from the United States of America.”

On ABC’s Good Morning America, Christopher Cuomo said to Powell: “The top United Nations’ relief official has said that rich countries like the United States are stingy. You said, we’ll do everything we can. Given how rich we are, can’t we do more than the few million we have put up so far? Shouldn’t we do more?”

Matt Lauer, on NBC’s Today, wasn’t as tough on Powell, but did ask, “The numbers I’m hearing, Secretary Powell, is this is going to cost billions—you know, obviously, the human toll, most important right now—but billions and billions of dollars. So is the United States prepared to go into that realm? Are we prepared to get into the billion-dollar range?”

The tone was different on Fox and Friends, FNC’s morning show. Host Brian Kilmeade asked Powell what the U.S. planned to do, and how the assistance would be organized (“Rather than just flooding in money and operations and people, how are we going about it?”). Then Kilmeade asked: “Do you have a sense of the operation, if people watching right now in America—we’re the kindest country in the history of this planet—where we should go, how we should help, where we should send our stuff and our money?”

The kindest in history? Hmmmm. Kindness is a subjective measure. Aid spending is not. According to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States gave more development assistance ($13 billion) in 2002 than the next seven most generous countries combined. That seems nice. But then again, the U.S. has the world’s largest economy by far. So in terms of aid as a percentage of national income, the U.S. ranked 22nd out of 22 among the leading developed countries (see chart below). Not so nice.

For its part, CNN’s American Morning didn’t even address the aid question. Instead Heidi Collins asked how many Americans were dead or stranded in the affected areas.

Development assistance as a percentage of national income, 2002

1. Denmark 0.96
2. Norway 0.89
3. Sweden 0.84
4. Netherlands 0.81
5. Luxembourg 0.77
6. Belgium 0.43
7. Ireland 0.4
8. France 0.38
9. Finland 0.35
10. Switzerland 0.32
11. United Kingdom 0.31
12. Canada 0.28
13. Portugal 0.27
14. Germany 0.27
15. Spain 0.26
16. Austria 0.26
17. Australia 0.26
18. Japan 0.23
19. New Zealand 0.22
20. Greece 0.21
21. Italy 0.2
22. United States 0.13

Source: OECD

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UPDATE: Amid the outcry over the initial $15 million offer, the U.S. upped its immediate package to $35 million. President Bush was asked about the aid offer at an appearance on Wednesday. He noted that “in the year 2004, our government provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. That’s $2.4 billion. That’s 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year, was provided by the United States government. No, we’re a very generous, kindhearted nation.”