February 25, 2005


(Taken from the February 25, 2005 issue)

American generosity

It has been a couple months since the powerful tsunami killed approximately 169,000 people in Southeast Asia. That horrendous disaster brought out the best in Americans, as well as other people throughout the world, who immediately made large contributions to help the survivors. It had a side benefit of demonstrating to Muslims in the devastated areas that Christians stood in solidarity with them.

If only our efforts on behalf of the poor, sick and needy could extend to the times when there isn’t such a spectacular disaster. Why can’t we residents of wealthy nations be just as generous toward the poor when they aren’t in the headlines as they were after so many people were killed in a single day?

The facts don’t make the headlines, but it is still a tragedy that every month more people die of diseases that could be cured than died as a result of the tsunami. It’s estimated, because we don’t even know for sure, that between 2 million and 3 million people, most of them children, die of malaria each year. AIDS kills more than that, and a million and a half or more die of diarrhea.

Is it only because those facts aren’t in the headlines that we don’t seem to be doing enough to change them? Americans proved that they can be generous after the tsunami, and there’s no evidence that we’re aware of that they wouldn’t be just as generous if they thought they could save some of those children who are dying of malaria.

Some might argue that there is such evidence. It’s in the fact, they insist, that the United States is dead last among 22 donor nations in contributions to underdeveloped nations when measured by our gross national product. Those contributions come to about 15 cents per day per person, in contrast to 84 cents per day per person for Denmark, at the top of the list.

Whenever those figures are publicized, Americans are quick to argue that they include only official development assistance. They don’t include private charitable contributions to such organizations as Catholic Relief Services, the American Red Cross and numerous other organizations that are doing so much good. It’s true; they don’t. But even adding those contributions to the official figures would bring the total up to only about 21 cents per day per person. Still nothing to brag about.

Yes, there is that evidence, but it doesn’t convince us that Americans wouldn’t be more generous if they were aware of the facts—and if they were convinced that their contributions really could do something to change the facts. Too often, they believe, the contributions don’t really go to those who really need them. That’s one of the reasons they have more confidence in private organizations.

American media (and, of course, The Criterion is part of them) clearly have not done enough to present the facts about the suffering that people in underdeveloped nations undergo. Nor have they (we) made it clear what a bargain it could be if we spent more money on development throughout the world than we do on, to take the obvious example, armaments.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, has estimated that we could save a million lives a year by spending $2 billion to $3 billion on providing medicines that cure malaria. “This is probably the best bargain on the planet,” he said. Consider­ing the billions of dollars we’re spending in Iraq, it certainly is.

Perhaps we could look at such expenditures as part of the war against terrorism. We know that many of the recipients of American aid after the tsunami said that they changed their minds about Americans as a result of that aid. If we change enough minds in underdeveloped countries, there would be fewer people willing to give up their lives in the mistaken belief that Americans are their enemies.

It’s hardly a secret that Americans are despised by a large percentage of the world’s population because we are perceived as uncaring, living affluent lives while much of the rest of the world’s people are suffering. We believe that most Americans would be willing to be more generous if they were certain that their generosity would be effective.

— John Fink

(John Fink is the editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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