Acton Commentary

Generosity - Public and Private


The recent tsunami disaster highlighted the need for sharing and generosity this holiday season. In the midst of the tragedy, one nation's demonstration of compassion was snubbed. The United States, before a thorough assessment of the catastrophe was possible, made an initial pledge of $15 million in aid to the victims, a sum hastily declared by Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, to be “stingy.” He blamed the ensuing swell of outrage on a “misinterpretation,” but Egeland's faux pas probably reveals more than his press release.

Upon returning from the tsunami-affected areas, Secretary of State Colin Powell called U.S. response “quite good,” emphasizing that help must be evaluated in the long term--throwing money out the window to silence critics does not save lives. In addition, President Bush has raised the pledge to $350 million. An immediately visible, vital--and unquantifiable--help has been military personnel and equipment; they have been delivering the abundant aid to areas of the greatest need.

But Egeland's misjudgment of the U.S. government's response to the tsunami is less important than the larger problem of which his statement is a symptom. It is the tendency, widely shared in the U.N., Western Europe, and in some circles in the United States, to measure generosity by percentage of gross national income (GNI). In today's diverse, global environment there is a new wave of giving, and it is rising from the private sector.

Focusing less on government and more on private aide provides a different standard by which to measure giving levels. Certainly, the United States' wealth entails a massive obligation to use that bounty toward the good of all. In a parable on stewardship in Luke 12:41-48, Christ says, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” Yet the United States comes last in the list of nations giving by percentage of GNI. Does this indicate that the country is failing dramatically to live up to its responsibilities?

Each year individual Americans donate around $35 billion overseas--a base estimate--which is more than three and a half times what the U.S. government contributes, according to Carol Adelman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and specialist in international aid and health issues. As a snapshot, in 2000, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported $56 billion donated to developing countries, sixty percent coming from private giving. Most developed countries in Europe lag far behind the United States when it comes to charitable giving by individuals. Philanthropy Magazine reported a German study that found the average American contributing around seven times what the average German contributes.

The U.S. government itself sometimes recognizes the vitality of American private giving. On January 3, President Bush spearheaded a movement to encourage the private sector to lend a hand with reconstruction efforts in Asia, with former presidents Bill Clinton and his father, H.W. Bush, leading the effort. A few days later, he signed legislation to extend tax deductions for tsunami-related private donations into the new year. Even without this push, private funding had already broken records; it will soon exceed the government contribution and illustrates how narrow is a perspective that judges a nation's generosity according to government aid alone.

Private giving, moreover, possesses certain advantages over public spending. People care when they give individually and on their own, personally involving themselves in the catastrophe and watching carefully to see that their money is used wisely. Too often public aid serves political purposes initially, and then devolves into a web of bureaucracy, where it is wasted or snatched up by oppressive regimes. As Friedrick Hayek observed, for lack of incentives and lack of information, central agencies have never been capable of effectively allocating resources--the UN's Oil for Food scandal is just one haunting reminder.

Religious belief often provides the motivation for philanthropy in America. Most voluntary contributions in the United States go to religious groups, and religious organizations give back at least $3.4 billion a year in foreign aid--excluding church collections and volunteer hours.

No single standard such as government aid as a percentage of national income can correctly measure national generosity. In fact, rather than attempting judgmental generalizations directed at others, it might be more productive for every person to consider whether he or she, personally, is responding adequately to the needs at hand. After all, no one wants to be stingy.