The Tsunami Effect

The extraordinary international response to the tsunamis that devastated South Asia is a remarkable political phenomenon. Though it is too soon to predict all the effects, some good consequences are already evident, as are some that are troublesome and others whose impact will play out over time.

One useful consequence is that wealthy countries’ low levels of assistance to those less fortunate has gained wider attention. Plainly, the comment by Jan Egeland, the United Nations official in charge of humanitarian assistance, calling the West “stingy,” hit home, especially in the United States. At that point, the Bush administration had committed a measly $35 million in aid.

While condemning Egeland’s comment, Bush quickly multiplied America’s commitment ten-fold. In addition, he enlisted former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a private fundraising effort.

This neatly fit a standard response to criticism of the level of American assistance: that private philanthropy exceeds government aid. Depending on what monies are included, this is true, although the British, Dutch, Germans, French, and other Europeans are also generous donors, despite lacking the tax benefits that encourage private philanthropy in the US.