WASHINGTON – President George W. Bush defended American generosity, even as his administration figures out how to pay for more help beyond the $35 million it has already promised to tsunami victims in Asia.
In his first remarks since the weekend disaster that so far has killed more than 76,000, Bush – like some in his administration previously – took umbrage at a U.N. official’s suggestion that the world’s richest nations were ‘stingy,’ and indicated much more is expected to be spent to help the victims.
‘Well, I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed,’ Bush said from his Texas ranch.
‘We’re a very generous, kindhearted nation, and, you know, what you’re beginning to see is a typical response from America.’
Bush noted that the United States provided $2.4 billion ‘in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. … That’s 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year.’
But the journey from the $35 million to potentially $1 billion or more in help for the tens of thousands of latest victims is fraught with bureaucratic twists.
First, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which distributes foreign aid, will have to ask for more money, since the initial $35 million aid package drained its emergency relief fund, said Andrew Natsios, the agency’s administrator.
‘We just spent it,’ Natsios said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. ‘We’ll be talking to the (White House) budget office … (about) what to do at this point.’
Natsios said the Pentagon also is spending tens of millions to mobilize an additional relief operation, with C-130 transport planes winging their way from Dubai to Indonesia with tents, blankets, food and water bags.
As of Wednesday, dozens of countries and relief groups had pledged at least $261 million in help for South and East Asia, said the Geneva-based U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
‘There’s no doubt there’ll be more than that,’ said Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. officer in charge of coordinating the international response from Switzerland. ‘The size of this thing is a challenge.’
But measuring the generosity of the United States depends on the yardstick.
The U.S. government is always near the top in total humanitarian aid dollars – even before private donations are counted – but it finishes near the bottom of the list of rich countries when that money is compared to gross national product.
Such figures were what prompted Jan Egeland – the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator and former head of the Norwegian Red Cross – to challenge the giving of rich nations.
‘We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries,’ Egeland said. ‘And it is beyond me, why are we so stingy, really. … Even Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become.’
Egeland told reporters Tuesday his complaint wasn’t directed at any nation in particular.
Secretary of State Colin Powell clearly was annoyed while making the rounds of the morning television news shows Tuesday.
He said it remains to be determined what the eventual U.S. contribution will be, but that he agrees with estimates that the total international aid effort ‘will run into the billions of dollars.’
Natsios was quick to point out Tuesday that foreign assistance for development and emergency relief rose from $10 billion in 2000, President Bill Clinton’s last year, to $24 billion under President Bush in 2003. Powell said U.S. assistance for this week’s earthquake and tsunamis alone will eventually exceed $1 billion.
‘The notion that the United States is not generous is simply not true, factually,’ Natsios said.
The United States uses the most common measure of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 rich nations that counts development aid.
By that measure, the United States spent almost $15.8 billion for ‘official development assistance’ to developing countries in 2003.
Next closest was Japan, at $8.9 billion.
That doesn’t include billions more the United States spends in other areas, such as AIDS and HIV programs and other U.N. assistance.
Measured another way, as a percentage of gross national product, the OECD’s figures on development aid show that as of April, none of the world’s richest countries donated even 1 percent of its gross national product.
Norway was highest, at 0.92 percent; the United States was last, at 0.14 percent.