The White Hats Tarnish Sometimes

One of the myths of American culture is that we are always the people is the white hats, the good guys riding old paint against the dark forces of evil. We generally think of our national identities in positive terms, believing that we live in the greatest country in the world, and that our responses to human need are noble and should be appreciated by those whom we help. We don’t like it when folks hold the mirror up and suggest that the white hats might actually be gray, or brown, or even leaning toward the dark and sinister of Simon Lagree or some other old time bandit.

Such is the response to the comments by Jan Egeland, the United Nations Underscretary General for Humanitarian Affairs which have been interpreted by folks on the right to suggest that the United States was “stingy” in our response to the horriffic tragedy in Asia. Tonight I heard some wacko radio host filling in for Bill O’Reilly condemn this official, suggesting that the 35 million offered is more than generous, that perhaps we should let folks in Asia deal with this on their own, and of course, that the United States needs to remove the United Nations from our soil. His comments were extreme, but throughout the right-wing blog world the “critique” by Mr. Egeland has been harshly condemned and attacked as typical United Nations underappreciation for the gifts we offer the world.

In defense of Mr Egeland, I do have to note that his comments have been taken completely out of context. Hearing his comments on the O’Reilly show tonight, I heard him not name any specific nation, but in general respond to the idea that all of the western nations (including his own Denmark) have been rather slow in giving assistance compared to the Gross National Products of those countries. In that reality, Mr. Egeland wondered out loud why countries percentages of giving seem to be going down in the face of increasing GNP’s.

Even though Mr. Egeland put this in general terms, not singling out the U.S., the data when analyzed as Mr. Egeland was analyzing it suggests that the U.S. is far from the most generous nation in the world. According to the latest rankings of giving, the United States ranks number fifteen in offering humanitarian aid as a percentage of Gross National Product. While the U.S. does provide the largest dollar amount of aid world wide (some $3.3 billion in 2004, not including support to Iraq), this amount represents only .15% of our GNP. Don’t miss the decimal point — it’s not fifteen percent, but 1/5 of 1 percent of our total economic output. Our personal giving rates aren’t much better. Most recent statistics suggest that the average American gives no more than 2 percent of income to all charitable enterprises, including church. When it comes down to it, we really aren’t very good at letting go of our dollars.

Certainly, $35 million is nothing to sneeze at. However, to give some perspective, the upcoming inauguration of George W. Bush will cost $20 to $30 million. As of today, the cost of the war in Iraq is around $147 billion (yes, billion with a “b”) being distributed to a country with a population of around 22 million (totalling around $6600 per person). While the numbers of survivors in Asia is uncertain, the numbers are in the millions and if giving remains at the current level ($60 million total) the average amount of relief per survivor will be somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 per person.

That’s the problem with figures. We look at $35 million and pat ourselves on the backs for giving some serious change forgetting that the latest Megamillions Lottery jackpot is up to $48 million. Yes, we’ll surely give some more, but will it be at the level of Iraqi assistance? According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, our GNP is around $11 trillion. What would happen if we were to match the personal giving level at donate 2% of the GNP toward humanitarian relief. What could $220 billion dollars do in the world?

The white hat looks good for a while, but after many days on the trail it discolors with age and the dust of the road. I wonder if we might take off the white hat to really think about how well we care for other’s throughout the world.

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