I've seen a number of conversations on other journals about the world's response to the South Asian tsunami. People say it's a pity that we respond so generously to a sensational disaster but ignore ongoing problems that are just as bad or worse. Some worry that the world will soon forget this, like so many other disasters, and ignore the long-term cost and effects.
My take on this is that everyone has to choose the size of their own sphere of influence. It's impossible for any individual to take on responsibility for all the suffering in the world, so anyone who wants to help must pick and choose. I would agree that disproportionately much money and effort goes to highly visible emergencies, but can donating too much to emergency efforts ever cause the world to neglect ongoing problems?
The reason i chose Médecins Sans Frontières for my donation is that they do a lot of good long-term work and are able to take a public stand against oppressive governments, unlike the Red Cross. I don't have a lot of background on them, but i have the impression that MSF is more independent and fast-moving than other organizations because it relies more on individual donations than government support. MSF was the first organization to begin working in Aceh, Indonesia, one of the most severely devastated areas. If anyone knows more about MSF or the Red Cross, i'd be interested in learning.
Is the United States government stingy? An editorial in today's New York Times says so. According to the OECD, the United States contributed by far the highest absolute amount, yet by far the lowest percentage of its GNP in foreign aid in 2002, out of the 30 member nations in the OECD. I don't know have any absolute moral standard for evaluating what a nation's responsibility should be, but i do know that so far the Canadian government has pledged more in tsunami aid than the United States government, and that makes me feel pretty good about my country.
(As i understand it, the United States administration has pledged US$35M so far. Canada has pledged CA$40M at the federal level, which at the current exchange rate is worth about US$33M. In addition, the province of British Columbia announced a contribution of CA$8M and the provinces of Ontario and Alberta quickly followed suit with CA$5M each, bringing the total to about US$48M. The Canadian government is also freezing all debt repayments from the affected countries.)
Then again, the U. S. government will almost certainly be contributing a lot more, and there is a huge flow of contributions from individual Americans to organizations like the Red Cross. Does the government have less of a responsibility to contribute because they collect lower taxes from individuals, or because there are also big contributions coming from United States corporations? Is it just a contest of egos to see which country can claim the biggest numbers? I don't know. A dollar from one country isn't equal to a dollar from another, even after currency conversion — foreign aid is bound to come with political strings attached.
Maybe both countries are contributing less than they "should". Remember how much was spent on this year's election campaigns.