Nothing stings an American like being called "stingy."
When Jan Egeland, United Nations emergency relief coordinator, said at a Dec. 27 press conference on the South Asia tsunami relief efforts that the world's wealthiest countries were "stingy" toward the world's poorest countries, both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell took offense.
Is the U.S. Meddling in Ukraine's Election? (washingtonpost.com, Dec 21, 2004)
Kofi Annan's Army (washingtonpost.com, Dec 14, 2004)
Winners and Losers in Russia's Ukraine Coverage (washingtonpost.com, Dec 7, 2004)
Anatomy of a Political Sex Scandal (washingtonpost.com, Nov 30, 2004)
Fear of Condi (washingtonpost.com, Nov 23, 2004)
World Opinion Archive
Bush said Egeland was "misguided and ill-informed." Powell said the U.S. had "nothing to be embarrassed about" in its response to the South Asia catastrophe.
Their defensiveness was curious because Egeland was not talking about the U.S. funding of tsunami relief efforts when he used the S-word.
"Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become," said Egeland, a Norwegian. "And if actually the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income, I think that is stingy really."
Only Holland and three Scandinavian countries have devoted as much as 0.7 percent of national income to foreign assistance, he noted.
Egeland went out of his way to say that he thinks Americans and Europeans are generous -- at least more generous than their governments. In the United States and Europe, he said, "politicians and pundits believe that [governments] are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."
When casualty figures mounted and Bush boosted the U.S. aid package to $35 million and then $350 million within days, some in the international press rushed to credit Egeland.
Alex Magno of the Philippines Star said Egeland's comment had helped raise $2 billion in additional aid. The Independent of London said, "international outcry and widespread dismay," forced Bush to up the U.S. offer. "Cornered Bush ups aid to $350 million," declared The Times of India.
But crediting Egeland for the increase in tsunami relief seems as misplaced as rebuking him for criticisms he may not have intended.
It is true that Bush's initial offer of $15 million did elicit some scorn in Europe. Writing in the center-right daily Le Figaro, columnist Stephane Marchand described $15 million as "a ridiculous figure given the scope of the catastrophe . . . less than half of what is bought in dog and cat food in the U.S. everyday." A writer for The Scotsman derided "two-bit Bush" for not giving more aid.
But the sentiment was not widespread. Two other leading European newspapers came to Washington's defense.
Italy's Il Foglio (in Italian) noted that Washington pays for 22 percent of the U.N.'s budget and donated well over 2 billion dollars to humanitarian aid. "No other country did as much."
Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung (in German), a Munich daily often critical of Bush's foreign policy, said "Egeland should have known better that provocations in the time of need cause more damage than they help. . . . He might be right that the current pledges of donor countries are not sufficient to deal with the catastrophe in the Indian Ocean, but it is a fact that the industrial nations have continuously increased their aid in recent days."
And in the South Asian online press there was virtually no criticism of the U.S. aid plans. OutlookIndia, a leading newsweekly that is also often critical of Bush, reported that India has refused all foreign assistance including "generous" offers of aid from the United States, Russia, Israel and Japan.
The reality that both the Bush administration and its critics skirt around is that Americans are neither collectively stingy nor individually generous when it comes to helping the world's poor.
While "no country spends as much on 'official development assistance' as the US," notes the Indian Express, "the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada all spend more per capita on humanitarian assistance." In terms of private donations, the editors add, "Irish, Swiss and Norwegian citizens give more than Americans." (So far Americans have donated $163 million for tsunami relief, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.)
The Daily Times of Pakistan noted that the United States devotes 0.14 percent of its gross national product to humanitarian aid and development, according to 2003 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
"That is much less than Norway and Denmark, which donate 0.92 percent and 0.84 percent of their GNP, respectively," the news site noted.
"Even France -- which was recently criticized as ungenerous by the director of the U.S. Agency for International Development -- gave 0.4 percent of its GNP in 2003, almost three times the percentage provided by the United States," the Daily Times noted.
In other words, the real story may be that Americans are neither Samaritans nor misers. When it comes to generosity, Americans are merely ordinary. But who in the world wants to hear that?