Disaster sans frontiers

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Jan 15 2005, 05:30am hrs
Amidst the horrendous devastation of the tsunami tragedy, the debate about international aid has become shriller and more accusatory. Two different issues have cropped up, both related to the larger sociology of aid. First, is America stingy Yes, say the New York Times, several European editorials and hundreds of anti-Bush blogs. What began as a semi-whispered righteousness has now become a widespread public perception. According to this bunch, the initial Bush offer of $30 million was plain insulting and has only been partially redeemed by a latter-day upgrade to $350 million.

Not so fast. According to reliable figures, almost 65% of US population volunteer their time in some non-profit activity and over 70% make some financial donation. Americans donate over $200 billion to charity each year, which is more than 1% of GDP, and making the US second only to Israel in private philanthropy. In fact, Americans give twice as much as Europeans. Even discounting for self-serving tax shelters, trust funds and evangelical movements, real charity in America is huge. Only, the average American likes to send money directly rather than support a federal bureaucracy.

In fact, charities and causes are flourishing, and there are 61,000 foundations with $500 billion in assets. If you ask any NRI who lives on the East and West coast urban corridors, they will tell you that they perhaps receive on average about five requests a day for charity donations. Even before the advent of tsunami-related donation campaigns began, it had reached a point in the US that people were complaining about a charity overload in their lives.

None of this makes the US stingy. Irrespective of official response, the US has always been very philanthropic. Even after excluding the Marshall Plan, Peace Corps and Usaid (on grounds that these are gratuitous extensions of soft muscle and foreign policy), America remains one of the most charitable places on earth. This is either under-appreciated by those who have never lived there, or is usually lost in the acerbic din which American action and stupidity overseas generates.

Second, how can a poor country like India refuse aid Was it another act of our churlishness In the last week alone, I received a dozen emails and calls from European diplomats and international media who have been incensed over this. Just two days ago, BBC grilled the Indian High Commissioner to the UK on its Hardtalk programme. Are you really that venal, the lady asked. Are you that keen to sit at the high table that you would forego millions of dollars that can save lives

Our official response was less than articulate, giving the impression that we were either ungracious or cussed. But in reality India did no such thing. Private foreign aid was and continues to be allowed; only bilateral aid was politely declined. If World Vision, Oxfam or Actionaid want to send money or supplies for tsunami survivors, they are most welcome.

But why decline even official aid Based on past experience, there are reasons. These range from security concern regarding defence assets (along the coast and in the Andamans) to huge administrative costs for overseeing such transfers to wasteful activity by some donors.

As one journal reported during the Gujarat earthquake, the Japanese were busily testing the water standards in affected areas and pronouncing it undrinkable, instead of concentrating on providing relief.

More than that, it also boils down to the fact that many people, and not just Indian officialdom or the internationally-reviled BJP, are a bit sick of being preached to and hectored about how bad things are in India. The international community may have trouble accepting this, but this mood spills over even to Indias own liberal and civil society (which, ironically, is robust in part thanks to global aid). International donor countries may be well meaning but nobody wants a sermon anymore during natural disasters. The rest of the Europeans can continue to thank the Dutch for being ostracised.

There is, however, more to this than just pique and pride. There is also some pragmatism, and this is perhaps what is common to both the US and Indian controversies. Is aid best spent via governments or via private agencies and civil society

Already, data from international sources confirms the intuitive view that the most credible relief organisations are those that are already on the ground in affected communities, rather than those that paratroop in after disaster has struck.

In a recent essay titled In times of crisis, the media is the moralist of the story, Martin Woollacott, the former foreign editor of The Guardian, has given a peek from inside into the world of foreign correspondents. He says that western correspondents tend to be moralist and interventionist, especially when covering calamities in the developing world. Plus, post-war Europe has relied mainly on international aid for global influence, with the minister of overseas development often as important as the minister of foreign affairs in many European countries.

All this may perhaps explain an exaggerated response from abroad.

The writer is editor, India Focus