The earthquake and disaster in Haiti immediately brought to my mind the Christmas Tsunami of 2004. Some may remember that when that horrific event struck, President George W. Bush immediately dispatched naval (and other) assistance and committed $350 million dollars (pdf) to relief efforts, to start.
There ensued a discussion on whether prosperous nations were “stingy” or not in their assistance to other countries.
I had no doubt we would see that discussion revived within the first week of Haiti’s grief, and here it is. From Nicholas Kristof:
First, a fact check. In 2008, the most recent year for which we have figures, the United States donated 92 cents per American to Haiti. Granted, any year can fluctuate, so look at three-year totals. The United States contributed $2.32 per American to Haiti over the last three years for which we have data (about 80 cents a year). That’s much less than other countries do, even though Haiti is in our hemisphere and has historic close ties to the U.S. For example, Canada contributes $12.13 per person to Haiti annually, and Norway sends $8.44. Other countries that contribute more, per capita, to Haiti than the U.S. are Luxembourg, Sweden, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Spain and Belgium. True, there are more Americans, so collectively our aid amounts to more than one-quarter of the pot in Haiti, but that’s only because we’re such a big country. Given the per capita sums, we have no right to be bragging about our generosity in Haiti.
Nice of Kristof to note that, yes, we are more populated—vastly so—than those countries. In 2008, the US Population was 304,059,724. Canada: 33,212,696. Norway: 4,769,274.
It is disappointing that a man of such privilege and influence cannot see anything commendable in the US “only” funding “one-quarter of Haiti’s pot each year,” or that the value of our readiness seems too intangible to warrant consideration, but more to the point: none of the nations listed by Kristof have the capacity to send 10,000 military personnel for security and assistance, to deploy naval vessels bringing medical care, potable water and medical supplies, to commit millions (perhaps billions) of dollars in reconstruction aid and so forth, at a moment’s notice.
I’m sure Kristof would prefer we spent less on maintaining our military in order to double our annual aid to Haiti, but given the historic corruption and mismanagement of Haiti, doubling our aid—while sounding wonderful—would have very likely accomplished little, in any given year. That is not an argument against foreign aid; as a prosperous nation, we have a duty to give real help to our less-fortunate neighbors.
Truthfully, however, neither the American taxpayer nor the people of Haiti have gotten much “bang” for the the US’ annual $243 million ($705,418,559.00 over three years). When you consider that Haiti is a small nation of less than ten million, the billions in annual aid given internationally should have fomented something better than the perpetual poverty, homelessness, and hopelessness to which the Haitian people have long-seemed consigned. When looking at the money that has gone into Haiti, and the third-world conditions which continue, one must—if one is being honest—admit that something is terribly out of joint and that simply throwing more money into a historical void cannot be the only answer.
Our aid to Haiti may seem insufficient to some, foolhardy to others, and people of good will can argue in either case. But let us consider the other hand, which holds this invaluable (and incomparable) intangible: we are in the position, right now, today, to do something real and concrete for the stricken people of Haiti, because we have done what other nations will not do: we’ve sufficiently equipped our military to be able to give these people real, on-the-ground aid and comfort, and security, at the risk to our own people.
Money is nice, but being able to get in-country and bind up wounds and rescue the stranded, and feed the hungry, and erect emergency shelter beats a feel-good bottom line in a blotter, any day. That America can both contribute a quarter of a billion dollars annually to Haiti and bring full-out assistance to her in a dreadful hour, suggests to me that balance matters.
I am proud of our military and emergency personnel. I am proud of the United States for being the nation that is always the willing first responder. I am proud of Americans, who run to help others when they can, and who dig deeply into their own pockets—even in a time of great economic hardship—to donate to an organization like Catholic Relief Services, at a rate of approximately $200,000 an hour, in order to help—simply because they see the need.
America may not donate as much cold, hard cash per person to Haiti, on a yearly basis, but in a time of serious crisis, she has puts human and productive resources at that nation’s disposal. I think that is worth a lot. I think it is nearly priceless.
I think that’s something to be take a bit of pride in, frankly.
By the way, when the “stingy” discussion was going on in 2005, Kristof wrote:
. . . the bottom line is that this month and every month, more people will die of malaria (165,000 or more) and AIDS (240,000) than died in the tsunamis, and almost as many will die because of diarrhea (140,000).
And that’s where we’re stingy.
He was one of the few journalists to even bother acknowledging the good work done by the Bush administration in helping to lessen those tragic numbers, and I do not doubt that Kristof is as proud of America as anyone. Further, I do not even mind that no matter what great thing America does, it is never enough for him—someone needs to be the needle in the comforter, to keep us from growing complacent.
But as America begins yet another heavy (and very likely thankless) humanitarian undertaking, it would be great if Kristof could manage to praise America, just once, without the qualifying “but . . .” Americans are not feeling great about much of anything right now, including her society, her industries or her president. How America feels about herself matters. If she stops believing in her goodness, and in her exceptional nature, Kristof may discover down the road that she is no longer able to do all the good he would like to see her do; she will be too depressed, and depression turns inward. Considered from that angle, perhaps a little flag-waving, a little puffing out of the chest, would constitute a real and urgent aid the generous-natured Kristof could offer to his fellow countrymen
America is going to go into Haiti, and we are going to help shovel out and comfort and feed and rebuild. But it will come to naught if we do not also find a way to influence the Haitian leadership toward the marketplace of goods and ideas, so that the Haitian people can do more than merely survive from day to day: so that they may grow, and dream and prosper. If America can help Haiti to do that, then she will, deservingly, feel very good about herself, indeed.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.