The longer view

WASHINGTON The deadly tsunami in Asia struck with little warning, and so did the eruption of criticism over aid levels that followed. The critical press coverage was a surprise because disaster relief has popular support and has rarely been a controversial part of the aid budget. It is far harder to build support for long-term reconstruction and development. . Americans tend to be more stingy if death is not imminent, and are less moved by widespread debilitating disease or malnutrition or poor education. They tolerate poverty in their own country, so it is not completely surprising that they ignore it overseas, even when it serves to undermine their own interests.

When Jan Egeland of the United Nations criticised U.S. giving, President George W. Bush rebuked him. Bush is right that the United States gives more, in absolute terms, than any other country. Egeland, however, is also right: America does not give as much as a wealthy nation can afford to give. One reason is that 20 times more of the federal budget is devoted to defence spending than to aid. . Bush has put his own stamp on the aid budget by pushing a more “businesslike” approach – reliance on for-profit contractors, creating a new Millennium Challenge “corporation” and investing in countries that are superior performers. This agenda does not address what to do with failing states, like Somalia or Sudan. A better bet is the emphasis he has put on fighting AIDS – a slow-moving tsunami of death. . What else can be done to improve the U.S. use of development aid?.

First, America should focus on what is needed to resolve crises and make a real difference. Campaigns to eradicate smallpox globally and drastically cut measles, river blindness and guinea worm in Africa are examples of how foreign aid has been used to solve, and not just mitigate, problems. One reason America doesn’t do this more is that measuring total need is difficult and may also show up U.S. shortcomings. Still, Americans may be more comfortable working in areas where results are more easily seen and measured, like sanitation and education.

Second, America should co-ordinate more closely with other donors, using the G-7 and the OECD to plan overall priorities and aid levels, and not just for a few high-profile initiatives. America could also work more closely with the European Union. Further, U.S. aid pledges could be linked to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, something other donors do.

Third, America should take the lead where it has special interests or relationships. A list that used to be made up of Haiti, Liberia and the Philippines now includes Afghanistan and Iraq; America should be there for all of them. America could then expect other countries to take the lead elsewhere. Splitting up responsibility along these lines sounds rational but would be very difficult in practice because the United States has many and varied interests throughout the globe.

Fourth, America should recognise that what it does in foreign aid sets an example that others may emulate or reject. This can have good results (when an emphasis on aid effectiveness becomes a hot topic internationally) and bad (when the United States abandons the UN population fund and others must pick up the slack).

Fifth, America should do a better job of following through on its commitments, rather than chasing the next day’s headlines. Congress should hold hearings and ask for status reports from the Congressional Research Service and Government Accountability Office. These steps may not make headlines but would help America get serious about a “businesslike” approach to foreign aid and enhance our international standing. (Anne Richard is vice president of the International Rescue Committee.)