The shifting politics of global giving

Government pledges of relief top $3 billion. Why some recipients say, 'No, thank you.'

When world leaders look around at their summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, Thursday to coordinate their tsunami relief efforts, they will notice some new faces at the table.

The traditional symmetry of aid that once matched rich, developed donors with poor Third World recipients is now skewing. Victims like India are helping other victims; beneficiaries of foreign aid like China are handing out money and sending doctors to Indonesia; and badly hit Thailand is turning down Europe's offers of debt relief for fear it could hurt its credit rating.

Governments and citizens of wealthy countries still feel a moral obligation to help poor nations - particularly in times of telegenic disaster - as the outpouring of more than $3 billion in state tsunami aid shows. Wednesday, Germany, Australia, and Britain all upped their pledges significantly.

But as the Dec. 26 disaster highlights, recipients are not always as receptive as they once might have been. Some countries don't want the "deserving poor" label - and the associated baggage of colonial paternalism. They prefer a more dynamic, self-reliant image.

India, for example, where nearly 10,000people are reported dead, has raised eyebrows by turning down international offers of help. As the Indian military launched its biggest-ever peacetime disaster relief operation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that he had told President Bush and other world leaders that "as of now we feel we have adequate resources to meet the challenge." He added, "If and when we need their help, we will inform them."

Development workers on the ground suggest that the Indian government is coping without the kind of foreign help that's pouring into neighboring Sri Lanka. "If things were not going well here we would raise the alarm," says Corinne Woods, spokeswoman for the UNICEF. "But everything at this point is working just fine given the circumstances."

And though India is a poor country in terms of individual incomes, the government currently has a record surplus of foreign exchange "that it doesn't know what to do with," says Vani Borooah, professor of economics at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Flush with income from software exports and call centers, India has been taking less and less international aid in recent years, says Professor Borooah. "The message the government is sending now is that it has a lot of funds at its disposal, and needs to use them creatively and economically."

The government is also raising local money creatively and economically by taking it out of employees' paychecks. At the government-owned Indian Overseas Bank, which has a strong presence in Tamil Nadu, one of the worst-hit states, management and the union decided that all employees would contribute one day's wages to the government's relief fund. Everyone at the bank "right from the part-time sweeper to the chairman" is giving up a day's salary, according to Lakshmanan Balasubramaniam, head of the bank workers' union.

All Tamil Nadu state employees found when they received their pay checks last week that they had made the same involuntary contribution. Senior state officials have pledged to give one month's salary.

India's self-reliance carries a political message too, says Rahul Bedi, a political analyst in New Delhi. "There is a newfound confidence," he suggests, "a sense of being able to dine at the high table. Long gone are the days when India might have been dependent on handouts from the US or the West."

And as India campaigns for a permanent seat on a revamped United Nations Security Council, Delhi's actions broadcast another meaning, says Vinod Mehta, editor of the weekly magazine Outlook.

"India is essentially the economic superpower in the affected region, and because it can look after its own people it can also afford to send help to its neighbors," he says.

Indeed, India has sent ships, planes, and helicopters to Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand, and Indonesia, joining a core group of key aid givers that also includes the United States, Australia, and Japan.

China is not yet in that league of experienced donors, but its $62 million aid pledge, one of the most generous, marks a "breakthrough" for Beijing, says Professor Kang, an analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

With this unprecedented contribution, China "is trying to reassure the rest of the world, and especially its neighbors, as its power grows very rapidly, that it will be a good global citizen," says David Lampton, an Asia expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Baltimore.

The Chinese Communist Party's newspaper, the People's Daily, reinforced the point in an editorial this week. "China's donation shows that through reforms and opening up, China has become good friends with Southeast Asia and also a trusted good friend of the world's people," it proclaimed.

Though China has never before given so much disaster-relief aid, it has quietly been building up its contribution to international aid programs: Beijing pledged $150 million to Afghanistan's reconstruction and has sent peacekeeping troops to Haiti, for example. In his New Year's message, President Hu Jintao predicted a bigger humanitarian role for China, which he said was "willing to provide assistance within our power ... to countries suffering from the flames of war, conflict, starvation, and poverty."

Both India and China "see themselves as civilizations, as great powers moving forward economically in ways that fit their sense of themselves," says Professor Lampton. And as they flex their humanitarian muscles, he adds, "we are seeing some healthy competition. For once, the big powers are competing to see who can be most generous."

Further from Asia, some unexpected names appear high on the list of donors: Norway, for example, whose government has pledged nearly $200 million, is the most generous per capita donor.

That, explains David Hansen, adviser to the Norwegian minister for international development, is partly because scores of Norwegian tourists are dead or missing "and people here feel they have been hit themselves." At the same time two of the worst-hit countries, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, are special partners of Norway's famed foreign-aid program.

"If we are serious about being at the forefront of helping UN efforts, even when the BBC and CNN have left, we have to chip in a serious amount of funds," Mr. Hansen says. The top UN humanitarian aid official, Jan Egeland, is a Norwegian.

Some Arab Gulf states have also been generous, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Regional analysts say they are motivated as much by the fact that many migrant workers in the Gulf region come from stricken countries such as Sri Lanka, as by Islamic solidarity with the world's largest Muslim nation, Indonesia.

Some charities in the Arab world have collected aid, but there has been little public enthusiasm there, says Abdullah Bishara, former Kuwaiti ambassador to the United Nations. "I am not impressed by the response of the people," he complains.

That may be due to the lack of civic institutions to mobilize the public, Mr. Bishara suggests. But it may also have something to do with the belief among some extremist Muslims that the tsunami was divine retribution against "centers of revelry" for Western tourists, as the Iranian daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami put it.

Thailand is eager to keep its reputation as a Western destination, despite the deaths of hundreds of European tourists. Though Bangkok is accepting international aid, it has turned down offers of debt relief by Germany and France.

Being excused interest payments now might seem attractive, Thai officials say, but that would go down in the country's credit history, and make it harder to get loans in the future. Thailand's financial reputation as a responsible debtor, they figure, is worth more than a few hundred million dollars of forgiven debt.

Correspondents Diana Coulter in Delhi; Nicholas Blanford in Beirut, Lebanon; Nachammai Raman in Madras, India; and Karen Coates in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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