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Richard Morin

Aid From the Gray Lady?

By Richard Morin
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B05

When it comes to Uncle Sam doling out disaster relief dollars to foreign countries, it apparently helps to be a friend of the United States and to catch the eye of the New York Times.

That's because each news story in the Times about a natural disaster abroad produces more than a half-million dollars more in U.S. disaster relief than what the stricken country otherwise would have received, based on the magnitude of the calamity and other factors, claim three political scientists who have studied the politics of disaster relief.

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E-mail Rich Morin at morinr@washpost.com.

A. Cooper Drury of the University of Missouri, Richard Stuart Olson of Florida International University and Douglas A. Van Belle of New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington compiled data on 2,337 natural catastrophes occurring between 1964 and the end of 1995, including how often stories about a disaster appeared in the Times.

Of course, it is the official position of the U.S. government that disaster relief is above politics and immune to influence from the media. The Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) issued a policy statement in 1990 affirming its commitment to strictly humanitarian and needs-based support. "Our assistance is to suffering people, not governments," the agency claimed.

Don't you believe it, Drury and his colleagues argue in a forthcoming article in the Journal of Politics.

They assert that disaster assistance is awash in politics at every step of the process. For example, basic foreign policy concerns have a huge impact on the initial decision of whether to give aid. Allies of the United States are about seven times more likely than non-allies or neutral countries to win OFDA approval. And while the Cold War may have brought the world to the brink of nuclear extinction, those were the salad days of disaster relief: Awards were significantly larger during the Cold War years than they are now, Drury said.

Other factors become critical when it comes down to deciding how much a recipient country will receive, notably the volume of media attention paid to the disaster. They found that each additional Times story about a disaster produced about $590,000 more in U.S. aid, even after controlling for such things as the number of people killed or left homeless and the relative wealth of the affected country.

These researchers said they chose the Times because, they reasoned, U.S. policymakers and other news organizations see and take seriously the stories that appear there. "Decision-makers responsible for foreign disaster aid are more likely to take their cues from the New York Times than from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Drury claimed.

Does prominent news coverage in other major media also produce a bonus? Drury thinks so. "We use the New York Times as a measure for media influence in general," he wrote in an e-mail. "So it is not simply the Times, but the coverage paid by major media outlets, especially those read by OFDA officials. The coverage of The Washington Post should have the same or similar impact, for example."

Well, that goes without saying. . . .

Behind the Baby Bust

From Japan to Germany to the United States, puzzled demographers are asking the same question: Why are so few people having babies these days?

Three University of Minnesota researchers think they've found an unexpected answer. They blame the baby bust on the Social Security system, 401(k)s and similar government old-age pension and savings plans. Those programs, they claim, have reduced the need for forward-thinking couples to produce lots of kids who could take care of Mom and Dad in their old age.

Increases in retirement benefits are inevitably followed by a corresponding drop in the birth rate; the bigger the benefit system, the bigger the decline, according to economists Michele Boldrin, Mariacristina De Nardi and Larry E. Jones.

For more than seven decades, with the notable exception of the baby boom period after World War II, the total fertility rate has fallen dramatically and consistently in virtually every developed country in the world.

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