Hurricane Katrina lifted the lid off hidden poverty in US cities. Scenes of New Orleans' poor left low and wet in high waters even triggered aid from other nations. Strangely, the US last week was arguing at the UN against increasing its foreign aid.
The heated backroom debate in New York was over the final details in the draft of a document to be adopted by world leaders at a summit next week aimed at reforming the UN.
Third-world nations and most European nations want the US to accept the idea that rich nation governments must give 0.70 percent of their gross national product to development aid, a sort of obligated tithing to meet a widely accepted target, proposed in 2000, to cut poverty in half by 2015. The UN claims the US spent just 0.16 percent of its GNP on development aid last year, far short of the 0.70 figure.
The Bush administration rightly disputes this UN approach. It notes that President Bush has doubled US foreign aid, making it a top global donor, and that percentages in official giving ignore the high levels of private giving by Americans to other peoples - levels that exceed those by Europeans.
This American tendency to put trust in private charity has shown up again in the high level of post-Katrina giving, which so far exceeds $400 million - not to mention the opening of homes to displaced families. (Soon after the Asian tsunami last December, private aid exceeded relief by governments.)
Private aid groups in the US have greatly improved their accounting and communications in recent years to give donors a credible sense of the real-world effects of their charity and how efficiently it's used. Such helpful feedback not only reassures givers that they're not being taken for a ride, but also encourages more giving.
But private giving doesn't build roads and levees, bring in rescue helicopters, or do all the heavy-lifting in much relief and development aid. That's a role mainly for governments and many UN agencies.
Katrina, like many global disasters, exposed the limits of such government help, such as the slow response of the federal emergency agency, the Louisiana National Guard, and the New Orleans police. Improving the work of those bodies will surely occupy much of the post-Katrina public discussion.
The UN's credibility, too, is under assault with an official report Wednesday that Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed to curb corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food program, and that the global body is much too inefficient and politicized.
Next week's summit was aimed at major reform of the UN, such as adding new Security Council members. Many of those ideas will not be implemented, and instead the pre-summit debate focuses largely on the amount of money rich nations should give to poor nations - rather than the way such money is spent.
Trust in the spending habits of all levels of government, as well as in the UN, must be improved if those official entities can expect to ask US citizens to give as generously in taxes for poverty-relief as they do as individual donors in giving to private charities.
Katrina exposed the poverty that resides in society, and the need for more aid. But it should also expose the need for more focus on how wisely such money is spent.