VIEWPOINT : The land of penny pinchers
NEW YORK - By Nicholas D. Kristof
So, is the United States "stingy" about helping poor countries?
That accusation by a U.N. official provoked indignation here. After all, we're the most generous people on Earth, aren't we?
No, alas, we're not. And the tsunami illustrates the problem: When 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 greater numbers.
The 150,000 or so fatalities from the tsunami are dwarfed by the number of deaths every year from malaria. Probably 2 million people die annually of malaria, most of them children, or maybe it's 3 million - we don't even know.
But the bottom line is that this month and every month, more people will die of malaria (165,000 or more) and AIDS (240,000) than died in the tsunamis, and almost as many will die because of diarrhea (140,000).
And that's where we're stingy.
Americans give 15 cents per day per person in official development assistance to poor countries. The average American spends four times that on soft drinks daily.
In 2003, we increased such assistance by one-fifth, for President Bush has actually been better about helping poor countries than President Clinton was. But as a share of our economy, our contribution still left us ranked last among 22 top donor countries.
We gave 15 cents for every $100 of national income to poor countries. Denmark gave 84 cents, the Netherlands gave 80 cents, Belgium gave 60 cents, France gave 41 cents and Greece gave 21 cents (that was the lowest share, beside our own).
It is sometimes said that Americans make up for low official aid with private charitable donations. Nope. Private donations add 6 cents a day to the official U.S. figure - meaning that we still give only 21 cents a day per person.
One reason for this stinginess is a sense that foreign aid is money down a rat hole. True, plenty has been wasted. But there's also growing evidence of what works and is cost-effective - such as health programs and girls' schooling.
One of the most unforgettable people I've met is Nhem Yen, a Cambodian grandmother whose daughter had just died of malaria, leaving two small children. So, Nhem Yen was looking after her four children and two grandchildren, and she could afford only one mosquito net to protect them from malarial mosquitoes. Each night, she had to choose which of the six children would sleep under the net.
Do we really think that paying $5 for a mosquito net to keep Nhem Yen's children alive would be money down a rat hole?
"The really big money can be better and more usefully absorbed by developing good health and education programs in the poorest countries," noted Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development. "But that's not as visible or heroic."
With America's image tarnished around the world, one of the most effective steps Bush could take to revive it would be to lead a global effort to confront an ongoing challenge such as malaria.
The best response to accusations of stinginess is not to be defensive, but to be generous. And the measure of generosity is not what you offer when the spotlight is upon you, but what you do when the spotlight moves on.