The Quality of Mercy

The top UN official for humanitarian aid, Jan Egeland, has offered an apology for implying in the early days of the tsunami disaster that rich countries, especially the US, were being "stingy" in their relief donations. Now, with over $2 billion in official aid and millions more in private giving going to Asia's victims, Mr. Egeland says, "International compassion has never been like this."

Indeed, the scale of mercy has few precedents. Charities, especially the Red Cross, report record donations. The US Navy has launched one of its largest humanitarian operations, providing vital services such as fresh water. On Thursday, world leaders will meet in Jakarta to pledge more aid and further coordinate relief and redevelopment efforts.

It's inevitable, however, that criticisms will appear about the quality of such massive giving. Donors are wary of scams or the level of overhead costs. Governments are faulted for inadequate or slow responses, or for posturing more than planning. Critics cite Indian politicians, for example, who flew to the tsunami site mainly for photo-ops.

After a tragedy of this scale, the biggest complaint may be that the world's attention span will be too short. To counter that, British Prime Minister Tony Blair says this global catastrophe will require "months, if not years, of work." Bush also made a long-term commitment.

UN officials like Mr. Egeland note inconsistencies in the amount of rich-nation giving. Many humanitarian workers walk a fine line between asking for aid and badgering potential donors. Generosity isn't something that should come out of guilt or shame but from the heart, from that feeling of being connected to those in need. Coerced compassion is no compassion at all.

Governments in rich nations often react well to a public's expectation for well-managed giving. The Jakarta meeting is a good example of trying to avoid complaints about misguided relief. Americans, in particular, hold a general suspicion of the way their government or the UN manages aid. The UN Oil for Food scandal only reinforces that skepticism. As a result, they tend to put more faith in private charities.

The US remains the world's largest government aid donor, but it ranks near last among rich nations in aid as a percent of its total wealth. Still, the bulk of all US international assistance comes from individuals, corporations, and private groups such as churches - far surpassing private giving per capita in Europe.

The quality of one's donation - knowing it is timely and effective - can help determine the quantity of giving. Givers want to know they've actually helped the recipients of their largess. It's the best way to sustain future generosity after natural disasters.

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