Germany's decision to raise its aid for the Asian tsunami to €500 million should increase pressure on the United States and other industrial nations to follow suit at a donor conference in Jakarta starting Thursday.
Aid often doesn't make it to those that need it
The natural catastrophe caused by last month's underwater earthquake and ensuing tsunami is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. The scope of the disaster makes it extremely difficult to coordinate relief efforts, but world leaders have gathered in the Indonesian capital Jakarta for a one-day summit.
In the wake of the destruction across South Asia, the outpouring of sympathy and willingness to give has been impressive the world over. However, considerable vigilance will be required to ensure sums agreed to on paper eventually make it to those who need it most.
On Wednesday, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said Berlin was increasing its pledge to half a billion euros. Calculating the amount of financial aid the world's rich nations should contribute to such a tragedy is always tricky, however, Germany's offer is an encouraging sign. Shortly thereafter, Australia said it would donate AUS$1 billion (€578 million) in aid. Both pledges easily top Washington's pledge of $350 million, highlighting just how stingy the United States -- the world's wealthiest nation -- is being with its financial aid.
Of course, no one is arguing rich nations should get into a race to trump each other with ever increasing aid amounts simply for PR reasons. But with an estimated death toll already estimated at over 200,000 and millions of others injured or displaced, the Asian tsunami is a disaster without modern precedent. It demands a commensurate response both physically and financially.
American crewmen from the USS Abraham Lincoln and Indonesian Army soldiers load relief supplies onto a U.S. Navy Sea Hawk helicopter at Banda Aceh airport for a sortie to earthquake and tsunami victims Monday Jan. 3, 2005.
After appearing to be slow to react in the immediate wake of the catastrophe, the United States has now ramped up its relief operations across South Asia considerably. Following his tour of one of the hardest hit areas in Indonesia, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington would likely double the number of helicopters currently being used to ferry supplies and the injured. The US armed forces have also deployed a fleet of naval ships and military aircraft. That increased logistical aid is crucial, since the United States is one of the few nations that can organize such help.
Increasing US aid
But US President George W. Bush would now do well to double his financial commitment to all the affected countries. Washington's pledge of $350 million is a vast improvement over the embarrassing $15 million initially offered, but it is dwarfed by the billions America pledged to help relief efforts for far less devastating hurricanes in Florida last year.
Compared to the pledges of Germany and Australia, Washington's financial aid doesn't measure up to the relative size of the United States' economy. Japan, the world's second largest economy, has already offered $500 million and even tiny Norway is donating $180 million.
Washington's leadership is also needed to ensure money that is pledged at the donor conference eventually shows up. Too often the world has pledged money after a natural or man-made catastrophe that never makes it to those in need. Whether for the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the toppling of the Taliban or for reconstruction aid follow the devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran in 2003, follow through on pledges is shockingly poor.
Of course, to encourage donor nations to deliver the actual sums they pledge, the entire nature of such relief efforts must become more transparent and efficient. Greater international coordination is required to track where money is coming from and for what purpose it is eventually used.
The dramatic and enormous nature of the tsunami disaster is what makes the summit in Jakarta so important. If the international community can coordinate humanitarian aid, debt relief and financial help for a catastrophe of such an immense scale, perhaps new standards can be set for the future.