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Are We Really Stingy? (Are You?)
The comment by a UN official that "wealthy" nations are "stingy" in contributing to disaster relief takes on fresh significance upon a closer look at behind-the-scenes facts.

As if the horrifying images from the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia, India, and Africa on Boxing Day weren't enough, viewers in so-called "wealthy" nations also had to contend with a little-known UN official accusing them of being "stingy" in the face of such disasters. It was enough to make you choke on that leftover turkey and cranberry sauce.

I think we could all get by on a little less and give away a little more.

Predictably, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and other spokespeople for the American government bristled at the accusation, made by the UN's Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland. Standing on their record, Powell, and more recently, President Bush, argued that the United States has given more foreign aid in the last four years than any other nation or combination of nations in the world. As for this current crisis, Powell stated that America's contribution to disaster relief and rebuilding would likely run into the billions of dollars.

So what was Egeland talking about then? Clearly, the US is the star player when it comes to foreign aid. According to 2003 figures released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States government budgeted nearly $16 billion to foreign aid. That is nearly double what the next largest contributor—Japan—earmarked for such causes ($8.9 billion), and four times what Canada budgeted ($2.2 billion). So, taken on a raw dollar level, Powell and Bush's claims cannot be disputed. When it comes to disaster relief and economic development, the United States is the undeniable leader. And remember, these figures do not even include the billions of dollars given by individual citizens through private charities and foundations.

But the dollar figures begin to lose some of their dazzle when you examine foreign aid spending as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This brings us closer to what Egeland was trying to get at. When rated according to this criterion, the United States plunges to number 22 on the list, contributing just 0.14 percent of its GDP to foreign aid. Japan doesn't do much better at 0.2 percent (placing it at number 19), and even Canada's 0.26 percent contribution fails to place it in the top ten (they're ranked at number 13). Leading the pack is Norway (Egeland's home country), which contributes 0.92 percent of its GDP to foreign aid. Still shy of a single percentage point, but, proportionally speaking, well over six times what the United States gives. If the American government decided to match the Norwegians next year, their foreign aid giving would leap to over $100 billion—about half of what it is costing them to fight the war in Iraq. And if all of the 22 richest nations in the world gave just one percent—never mind the ten percent Egeland suggested they give when he appeared recently on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360°—the globe would literally be awash in foreign aid dollars. In fact, there may even be a surplus!

While Egeland's comments have probably inspired more feelings of bitterness than generosity among Americans (further souring the already tepid relationship between the US and the UN), no one can dispute the validity of his criticism. When the world's governments met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, they agreed to a program, known as Agenda 21, which called on the world's 22 richest nations to meet a foreign aid target of 0.7 percent of their GDP. As of 2003, only six nations had met or exceeded this target, including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Sweden. With countries like the United States and Canada giving only one-fifth of this amount twelve years after the agreement was signed, it only makes sense that someone would point out our failure to meet such an important obligation. Such comments may make us angry, and they could have been delivered in a more diplomatic fashion, but that does not mean they are without truth. I do not believe that Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Norwegians or citizens of the other 22 richest countries in the world are stingy people. A little self-involved maybe, but not the type to turn a blind eye to a brother or sister in need. That said, I think we could all get by on a little less and give away a little more. That includes both governments and individual citizens.

So, rather than become angry and defensive when confronted with this fact, why not take up Egeland's challenge and prove him wrong? I am sure nothing would make him happier. After all, we are facing one of the largest humanitarian disasters in modern history. The priority right now should be on helping those in need, not pointing fingers or defending ourselves. As nations and as individuals, we would all do well to search our hearts and ask if we are truly doing all that we could be doing in the face of such pressing needs.

God is much more likely to inspire you with a vision of what the world can become if we contribute even a little bit more …

I do not believe there is not some magic number or percentage of our personal income or GDP that, if reached, will alleviate us of all further responsibility. How much or how little you give is a matter between you and God. So while you are busy searching your own heart, take some time to search God's heart as well. Don't worry: I highly doubt that He will accuse you of being stingy, as Egeland did. God is much more likely to inspire you with a vision of what the world can become if we contribute even a little bit more than we do currently. I would like to inspire you with that same vision as well.

You may already contribute regularly to one or more global relief organizations. If so, we encourage you to channel your extra relief funds through them. If not, you may want to consider contributing to the Global Aid Network (GAiN), a relief organization that demonstrates the love of God to hurting and needy people around the world through relief and development projects.

In addition to increasing your own personal giving, I also encourage you to contact your local, state, provincial, and national government officials, urging them to increase the amount of money your nation contributes to foreign aid and development. If we all work together like this, even the little bit that we do will add up to a whole lot.

Kevin Miller is a freelance writer, editor, and educator from Abbotsford, BC. He has written, co-written, and contributed to more than two dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction. See his work at

Originally published in The Clarion, December 29, 2004.




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