Remaking an American Myth

U.S. journalists are seizing on the tragedy in Haiti in a non-stop barrage of reporting, providing endless updates on a devastating earthquake that has killed an estimated 45-50,000 people.  Coverage of the quake is accompanied by detailed updates of the suffering of those involved, in addition to assurances that the U.S. government (and private donors) is doing all it can to help those in dire need.  This framework comports well with American journalists’ self-image – reflexively accepted – that the U.S. promotes the global good through altruism and humanitarianism.

John Stewart lectures his viewers that "now’s not the time" to speak about the political aspects of the Haitian tragedy, most specifically how the U.S. reaction to the crisis relates to its own strategic objectives throughout the world (Daily Show, 1/14/2010).  But if not now, then when can we discuss whether the U.S. response is adequate?  When can we debate whether our actions are politicized by strategic interests?  An analysis of U.S. aid is absolutely vital now, more than ever, because a critical self-reflection can provide the impetus and pressure for a much needed increase in aid to those in need.


While pundits and reporters in the media celebrate the $100 million Obama pledged to Haiti, this figure needs to be put into comparative and historical perspective.  U.S. aid to those in need of disaster relief has not been uniquely generous over the last decade.  Americans would do well to remember the lackluster response to the December 2004 Tsunami that led to the deaths of approximately 288,000 people in Indonesia and surrounding countries.  The Bush administration responded to that crisis by allocating $450 million, the second largest amount in hard dollars out of any country in the world.  This figure was highly misleading, however, as the U.S. gave the second smallest contribution as a percent of its GDP of all the top donors, behind Denmark, Sweden, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, the United Kingdom, and France.  U.S. aid levels (when compared to other countries) improved only marginally in the case of Haiti.  On the one hand, the $100 million it allocated represents almost 20 percent of the total $546 million pledged as of January 15th.  On the other hand (as the table below indicates) the U.S. hardly leads the way in the Haitian aid campaign, when aid is measured as a percent of GDP.


First world aid to Haiti should be no cause for celebration, and is actually quite depressing in spite of the media’s boasting about America’s benevolence.  The aid of all the countries on the top donor list for Haiti (again listed below) amounts to a relatively meager amount when compared to each country’s national GDP, and when compared to the aid the powerful grant to other countries.  Consider the case of the United States.  At $100 million, its aid to Haiti is embarrassing when compared to the amounts given to strategic assets such as Israel, Egypt, and Colombia.  These countries are hardly in need when compared to third world countries suffering from malnutrition, starvation, disease, and war.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. aid to Israel averaged $3 billion each year from 2000 to 2006.  Similarly, the U.S. provided Egypt $1.9 billion on average each year, with Colombia receiving $312 on average per year. 


The contrast between humanitarian and strategic U.S. aid should be sobering for those genuinely concerned with humanitarianism.  A country like Colombia receives in a single year more than three times the Haitian victims in order to fight a terrorist counterinsurgency war against Marxist guerilla groups (and the civilian population more generally), while a totalitarian government in Egypt receives billions while it is accused of torture and suppression of basic civil liberties by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.  The billions provided to Israel in the name of "security" have enabled the expansion of a bloody war with the Palestinians that has taken the lives of thousands, while failing to make Israelis safer, and providing Israel with the cover to illegally annex major portions of the West Bank.




Global Aid and Top Donors to Haiti (2010)



Aid as a Percent of GDP

Aid in Millions of Dollars

1.    Guyana



2.    Estonia



3.    U.K.



4.    Denmark



5.    Norway



6.    Brazil



7.    Australia



8.    Greece



9.    New Zealand



10. U.S.



11. Finland



12.  Switzerland



13. Canada



14. Netherlands



15. Spain



16. Japan



17. China



18. Germany



19. Italy



20. Russia




None of these criticisms are meant to blame the U.S. for its stinginess or for its escalation of human rights atrocities at the expense of criticizing other countries.  A review of 2008 aid levels from first world countries demonstrates that the U.S. shares the same boat as Western Europe.  Although the U.S. gave the largest amounts of foreign aid of any country in hard dollars (more than twice the amount of the second largest country, Germany), it provided the smallest amount of first world countries as a percent of gross national income, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  The miserly aid of the U.S., representing just .2 percent of total U.S. Gross National Income in 2008, is not significantly smaller than the aid of other wealthy countries.  The most "generous" of foreign aid donors – including Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands – gave between just .95 to 1 percent of their GNI in aid.  Other European countries gave less.

Critical introspection is needed most at a time when so many people are in dire straits.  The Haitian disaster provides the U.S. government and people with a tremendous opportunity to promote genuine humanitarianism, rather than self-serving boosterism.  A serious commitment to human rights, however, requires a radical rethinking of the prioritization of strategic aid at the expense of humanitarian aid.  This rethinking will not occur if left to U.S. leaders.  The American public must play the dominant role in forcing a reconsideration of U.S. global objectives.



Anthony DiMaggio is the author of the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (Monthly Review Press, February 2010).  He is also the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2009) and teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He can be reached at: adimagg@ilstu.edu

Leave a comment