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Aid Through the Eyes of Empire


In an earlier posting I suggested that western governments could do more to help those effected by the tsunami disaster. Specifically, through a massive increase in aid, opening our borders to refugees, simultaneous debt cancellation and a restructuring of neoliberal economic policy.

Within days of that posting, media reports announced a “US-led aid coalition”, a grouping of countries comprised of the United States, India, Australia, Japan and apparently Canada. These countries are supposed to act as a “core crisis group”. Although, not even any where near what I would hope for, the announcement of an international aid coalition led by the U.S. demands that I be more specific about what I meant by my claim that western governments could do more.

For starters, I think it’s a good thing that aid donations have exceeded $2.6 billion dollars and continue to rise. However, again, it still doesn’t compare with annual global military expenditure ($950 billion), the U.S. military budget request for the Fiscal Year 2005 ($420.7 billion), or breakfast in Iraq, for as long as the U.S. has occupied that country, “We spend $35 million [every day] before breakfast in Iraq.” – US Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy.

The Bush administration’s first response to this catastrophe was silence. Then an announcement of an aid donation of $15 million dollars. Then an increased contribution of $20 million dollars, to a total of $35 million. Then a further increase of $315 million for a current total aid package of $350 million. This was accompanied by both defensiveness and self-praise, as noted by other commentators.

But, how significant is the U.S. donation of $350 million as compared to other countries? Does the U.S. deserve its own congratulatory remarks? Is the U.S. really leader of the aid effort?

When comparing the U.S. donation to donations from other countries Juan Cole suggests that we can’t do it in terms of absolute numbers. Instead, he says “You have to look at the population of the country and at its per capita income.”

In these terms, the USG is now pledging about $0.90 cents per person. A country like Qatar, offering aid of $25 million, is donating about $250 per citizen.

The Kuwait offer of $2 million is about $2.00 per citizen, or $1.00 per person if guest workers are counted. On a per capita basis, the Kuwaiti donation would be comparable to the U.S., except that, as Cole notes, Kuwaiti income is about half that of Americans.

Cole continues:

“The Libyans are giving about $0.36 per person, and their per capita income (purchasing power parity method) is a little over $6,000. That is about 1/7 of the US per capita income, so their contribution burdens the Libyans the same way a roughly $2.50 per person contribution would burden Americans. Remember, the USG is currently giving ninety cents a person.

The Turks have offered 18 cents a person. But their per capita income is only about $3000 per year, or a tenth that of an average American, so this pledge is equivalent to an American one of $1.80. That is, the Turks are giving twice what Americans are if everything is taken into account.”

So much for U.S. self congratulatory praise and leadership…

In my previous posting I suggested that western governments have a moral duty to do all they can to help in this situation, in ways that do not promote self interest. But, by setting up a “US-led aid coalition” as a “core crisis group”, I’m doubtful that the US is acting benevolently.

My initial thoughts are that coordination and administration of aid and relief could be best achieved through the umbrella of an international body. There are plenty of these, including the UN, to name the most obvious…

So why not the “US-led aid coalition”? UK’s International Development Secretary Clare Short recently suggested that the US effort to form a coalition could undermine the UN. “I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up… It is the only body that has the moral authority. But it can only do it well if it is backed up by the authority of the great powers”, said Short.

Debates about the the UN as an effective international institution aside, I don’t think it’s out of line to say that it didn’t take long for the US to exploit this disaster, which undermines the international aid effort, the UN and other international institutions, while continuing to build the U.S. empire.

So what is the alternative and what can a western government do? To begin with, it can support already existing international aid and relief organizations and institutions, instead of opportunistically claiming to “lead” the aid effort. It can also recognize and support the aid efforts of others, rather than push them into the background. Beyond that, further increases in aid, opening our borders, debt cancellation and abolition of neoliberal economic policy would all be totally appropriate.

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