Relief within limits

December 28, 2004

THE DEVASTATION caused by South Asia's enormous earthquake and resulting monster waves comes at a particularly unfortunate time in the U.S. budget cycle. There have been so many such emergencies of late that officials are already draining relief resources away from less urgent, long-term humanitarian assistance programs.

Practical as well as moral concerns suggest that the overall relief category should be increased. But thanks to huge financial burdens imposed by the Iraq War, as well as the revenue lost to tax cuts for the wealthy, the federal budget is so deeply in deficit that the Bush administration is trying to hold the line on what it views as lower priorities.

Thus, a tragic irony: Programs that have the best chance of sowing goodwill for the United States -- food aid, health care, education, reconstruction, disaster preparedness -- are being squeezed in part because of a war that seems to have geometrically increased the ranks of people who hate Americans.

Even the initial flow of American emergency aid for the earthquake disaster is being released in phases to keep it within limits.

The United Nations estimates that billions of dollars and many years will be required to rescue, repair and rebuild in the wake of Sunday's calamity, in which many of the victims lived in seaside fishing villages that were completely wiped out. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters that analysts will be determining how much more American help is needed for the "long haul," but it's not clear the U.S. will necessarily pony up.

From a strategic standpoint, it makes little sense to nickel-and-dime on humanitarian gestures. "People remember who was there to help them, especially in the immediate aftermath of a disaster like this," said Sean Callahan, vice president of international operations for Catholic Relief Services. "They keep that in their minds always."

Aid workers in long-term assistance programs such as the ones Mr. Bush has cut are typically first on the scene when disaster strikes because they have networks in place.

And the extra $300 million to $500 million relief agencies want Mr. Bush to include in an emergency budget request next month is peanuts when compared to $200 billion for the Iraq War or $2 trillion to redesign Social Security.

What's more, the hostility cost of reneging on promises to aid agencies and locally based partners that have made plans in expectation of U.S. assistance could be far higher than any savings that result.

Of course, humanitarian aid -- whether it comes right away or sometime down the line -- shouldn't be about what good it does for the U.S. Compassion should be its own reward.

But if we are truly interested in winning friends and influencing people, helping them help themselves is a cost-effective path that deserves far more respect from budgeteers.

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