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Tsunami Aid By the Numbers

Over the past two weeks, “Tsunami-Aid” concerts were organized in many countries, including one in the city of Cardiff, England which the BBC described as an “event set to be Britain’s biggest charity concert since Live Aid 20 years ago.” These and other numerous events that mobilized people around the world for the past month, are a testament to the solidarity and generosity that ordinary humans can feel and display towards fellow human beings struck by calamity. Or are they?

An article published January 16th by the Observer on Sunday (“West’s tsunami pledges $200m short: Oxfam”) compared the donations made by private individuals of 12 countries to the victims of the Asian tsunami, in the first 15 days following that natural disaster. The Observer’s article reported the donations in absolute terms, showing that Norwegians donated the most per head of population ($13.20) followed by the Swedes ($12.04), the Dutch ($9.16) the Australians ($5.23) and so on, down to the Americans with a donation of $1.08 per head, and the French, whose per head donation amounted to 80 U.S. cents. The Observer table places Saudi Arabs in the middle of the pack, at number 6 with a donation of $4 per head, but still outranking Canadians, Austrians, Brits, Greeks, Americans and French in their generosity.

Ranking people’s generosity in absolute terms however is not very instructive. A more informative approach would compare donations as a percentage of per- capita income, the average amount of money each head of population is theoretically supposed to earn. Thus, if two people donate $1,000 each to a charity, but one makes $50,000 per year while the other earns $100,000, the former has of course proven to be twice as generous as the latter. This more accurate measure of generosity reveals private Saudi individuals as the most generous amongst the people of the 12 countries mentioned in the Observer article, followed in descending order by the Swedes, Dutch, Norwegians, Australians, Germans, Canadians, Greeks, Austrians, Brits, French, and in 12th and final place, Americans.

In terms of percentage of donations relative to their per capita income, the Saudis are revealed to be extremely generous indeed: 112% more generous than second place Swedes, 134% more than 3rd place Dutch, 154% more than fourth place Norwegians, 194% more generous than 5th place Australians, and so on to a staggering 1,421% more generous than 11th place French, and 1,617% more than 12th place Americans.
What do the above numbers tell us?

They seem to shatter the widely held myth often quoted by U.S. media and government spokespersons, namely that “Americans are the most generous people on earth.” Since the above analysis compares private, not official donations, the generosity of Saudi individuals cannot be dismissed away as resulting from their “oil wealth.” Indeed, Saudi per-capita income, at $8,530, pales in comparison with American per capita income at $37,610. Interestingly, the pattern of poorer people giving a larger percentage of their income to charity than richer people is mirrored in domestic US private charitable donation patterns: it’s a well documented fact that poorer Americans donate a larger percentage of their income to charity than the richer amongst them do.

The numbers also serve to reflect a certain moral confusion on the part of donors.

When the statistics discussed above were compiled, close to 150,000 people were known to have died in the 2004 tsunami (the number to-date has risen by another 100,000) and more than five million were rendered homeless by it. Very soon thereafter, apparently before governments got their acts together, people all over the world generously and seemingly spontaneously dug deep into their sometimes shallow pockets to give to the victims of this natural catastrophe, shaming the hesitant stinginess of their governments’ original response. Very soon thereafter, movie celebrities and music stars rushed to anchor telethons and concerts to raise additional funds. Then the establishment emerged from its initial lethargy and co-opted the program: the nominee Secretary of State declared in a crass remark that the tsunami had “paid great dividends” for the U.S. since it “was a wonderful opportunity to show not just the U.S. government, but the heart of the American people” (an assertion unfortunately not supported by the numbers, as shown above,) and two former American presidents were enrolled to appear on TV, urging people to open their hearts and purses to the poor victims of this natural disaster.

For victims of natural disasters: billions of dollars in donations, dozens of live-aid concerts and celebrity appearances, and two former US presidents urging their compatriots to give generously. But for victims of man-made disasters, be they Iraqi, Afghan, Rwandan, Congolese, Timorese, or Haitian, no world-wide fund-raising efforts, no concerts, and no former presidents urging relief: just current ones intent on bringing them more harm. This is not to take away from all the courageous voices that were raised in protest at the war. But between protest and life-giving monetary donations there exists a significant gap that begs to be explained in this case.

Does this mean that we should not give generously to the victims of the tsunami or other natural disasters? On the contrary: solidarity with our less fortunate fellow humans who are struck by any type of disaster is a virtue. Indeed, we need to nurture and expand it to include long-term, inexpensively avoidable calamities like malaria, diarrhea, trachoma and other endemic, infectious diseases that kill and maim more people each month than the total number who died in the 2004 tsunami. What this also means therefore is that we must learn to be consistent when we dig deep into our pockets to help our fellow humans: we must extend our generosity to the long suffering Iraqis and other people in the non-white, poor countries of the globe, who deserve the same worldwide fund-raising effort and celebrity-anchored telethons and music concerts to bring them relief from their man-made disasters as the victims of the 2004 tsunami deserved our compassion to help them manage the consequences of their natural cataclysm.

While ever mindful that many celebrities and extra-ordinary people around the globe are still courageously speaking out, organizing and working against the war in Iraq, one is still compelled to ask: what was it that led millions of people to march two years ago against a war that hadn’t yet started, a historic first, only to then do next to nothing monetarily for the victims of that war once it got under-way, but to give billions of dollars to the victims of a natural disaster a couple of years later?

Did the poor Iraqis and Afghans not need and deserve monetary help and relief from their man-man disaster as much as the tsunami victims did from their nature-induced catastrophe? And did the poor Congolese, Rwandans, Sudanese, Timorese, and other Asian and African victims of modern-day holocausts not deserve the same widespread indignation that their Iraqi brethren inspired, let alone, along with the poor Iraqis and Afghans, the same fund-raising drives that the tsunami victims rightly received? These questions speak to the very foundations of morality. Or, for those who would prefer to think of it in another term, of faith.

Given the above discussion, can we offer a reasonable understanding for the failure of people to be consistent in their generosity? One might be tempted to offer one easy explanation for the extraordinary generosity displayed by Saudi Arabs towards the tsunami victims: they were merely giving to fellow Muslims, since the majority of the tsunami victims were also Muslims. That would not explain, however, the absence of an equal amount of collective Saudi generosity towards, and fund-raising drive in favor of, their Iraqi Muslim brethren. Nor would it explain why Europeans and Americans did not give another five or ten dollars per head to the victims of the African holocausts or to the millions who suffer and die each year in Africa, Asia and South America, as a result of easily preventable infectious diseases. This points to one obvious conclusion amongst others: the failure, here, was not of the people, but of their political leaders and societal role models. Given half a chance and organized leadership, as in the case of the officially-sanctioned and celebrity-sponsored tsunami fund-raising drives, people, be they Saudi, Norwegian, American or otherwise, will do the right thing. That same leadership went AWOL in the case of recent and less recent made-by-man disasters. This should give us all reason to pause, reflect, and perchance, act.

RACHARD ITANI can be reached at: ritani@datavalet.com

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