Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Anatomy of the stinginess affair

I've been pretty surprised with how crazily American media (which includes bloggers) has gone with respect to the 'stinginess' thing. When the controversy first erupted, I figured that what would have ensued would've been an in-depth examination of the metrics of giving: how is giving measured (per capita? raw numbers? how much is private giving compared to government spending?). Any number of interesting discussions could've followed from that. For example, is private giving more moral than public giving? To what extent does America have some moral obligation to help the world given the benefits we get from a globalized world? And so on.

Instead, we've seen a frenzy of UN-bashing and borderline-hysterical defenses of America as 'the most charitable nation on earth' (two things about that: absent an intelligent discussion of how we measure that, how can we tell we're the most charitable? Perhaps it hasn't been raised because the conclusions wouldn't shine well on us? Second: what's with our obsession with being the 'most' charitable? Why can't we just settle for 'really' charitable or something? The obsession with superlatives has always struck me as silly.).

One typical response has been to point to the amount of money that Americans have donated so far, and to conclude that Egeland has been conclusively rebutted. It's interesting, though, that Egeland actually predicted - correctly - that the amount of giving for this disaster would be quite impressive:
I think an unprecedented disaster like this one should lead to unprecedented generosity from countries that should be new and additional funds, cause I wouldn't want to see many of our friends, the donor countries, depleating their natural disaster coffers the 1st two weeks of Jan. then have nothing more when we come to other disasters.
The concern animating this is that donor countries will spend a lot of their money on the tsunami, and won't have anything left for spending on other humanitarian projects. To put it differently: he's saying that there will be 'unprecedented generosity', and that's the problem; their generosity will sap budget outlays for other problems or disasters.

Bjorn Staerk gets it right here:
Egeland denies that he criticized the US for its response to the tsunami - what he meant was that rich countries in general don't give enough to poor countries unless there's a big crisis to prod them.
Egeland's concern was for relief aid that isn't a mightily spectacular disaster that plays well on TV. And really, this is a criticism that's all too common of our nation: we only pay attention to big shiny things. This is a criticism that's as common on the religious right as it is on the secular left. In short, pointing to aid given for the tsunami just misses the point.

Egeland later clarified his remarks. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted:
U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland praised rich nations Wednesday for their generosity in helping victims of the tsunami, but stood by his criticism that the rich do too little to assist the poor when there are no emergencies.
Per the 'USA! USA!' spin on the story, though, this was inexplicably spun as Egeland 'backing off' of his criticisms.

At any rate, I wonder if this stat might explain a bit about the crazed reaction:
A 2001 poll sponsored by the University of Maryland showed that most Americans think the United States spends about 24 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid—more than 24 times the actual figure.

If I thought we gave that much and were categorized as stingy, I suppose I might go ballistic, too, I suppose. Instead, I'm left scratching my head at how off-the-rails the public discourse has gone. It could've (and should've) led to some interesting questions about what we should do, how we measure that, etc. It's been a real missed opportunity.