A 'Tsunami' in Private Giving

Governments should learn from aid groups

Stand up, America, and take a deep bow for yourself. You have crossed a remarkable threshold in compassion.

Your private donations to the tsunami survivors - already more than $400 million - have exceeded your own government's financial aid ($350 million). In fact, at least one-third of American households say they have donated money to an aid group in tsunami-hit nations.

This outpouring of charity from individuals, as well as from religious groups and corporations, wasn't just because of the scale of nature's wrath on Dec. 26 in the Indian Ocean.

Yes, the images of people and towns being washed away were heartbreaking.

Yes, the number of those killed within hours remains unimaginable (perhaps now 220,000); also, millions are still left destitute or without families.

No, this wasn't a disaster like war, famine, or an epidemic, which are often slow in their impact and, in most cases, can be prevented - thus often reducing the incentive for giving.

Rather, this "tsunami" of charity was also possible because of several significant trends that foster hope about greater levels of compassion.

Reliable Internet giving

For one, the Internet and many private humanitarian groups have made it not only easier for people to give money efficiently and quickly, but those groups have also improved the level of trust about how each person's donation is spent.

Many groups give donors detailed feedback, including pictures, on how their contributions are being used. One Web-based group, GlobalGiving, allows donors to e-mail local implementors in the affected nations. Many church congregations in the US have hooked up by phone or video link with sister churches in tsunami-hit areas to receive reports on the effects of their donations on people's lives.

The US branch of Doctors Without Borders announced it won't take any more donations for its operations in southern Asia. It had all it could handle. Direct Relief International explained to donors that their tsunami aid money would be held in a separate bank account.

The Red Cross, among other aid groups, has worked harder to ensure that scam artists aren't asking for money in its name. Some charities say none of the donations will go for administrative costs.

That sort of accountability, openness, and human touch in helping both the donors and the disadvantaged should only encourage more giving.

Here's the lesson in all this for elected officials: Such accountability in aid and in connecting taxpayers to recipients is something governments haven't done enough, or at all.

Taypayers gladly turn to private giving for others rather than expecting their government will provide aid - perhaps out of fear that their tax money might be ill-spent, either because of high overhead costs, badly managed projects, or corruption at some level.

Private philanthropy does have a few things to teach all governments, as well as the United Nations, which are in the business of humanitarian work.

But governments can also do more to encourage private giving.

President Bush asked two former presidents, his father, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, to lead a campaign to raise private money for tsunami relief groups. Congress has allowed taxpayers to deduct donations made to relief causes this month on their 2004 returns.

End slippage in official aid

The UN, in particular, can do more to encourage private giving as well as pleading for more foreign aid from governments. Its latest report, by an advisory group of development experts, makes a strong case for rich nations to give more for poverty reduction. But it also acknowledges that much official aid goes to waste in nations with high levels of corruption and inefficiency.

It's just that sort of slippage in official aid that turns off taxpayers and turns them toward private giving.

"The generosity and support we have seen over the past few weeks have set a new standard for our global community," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week.

Indeed, that standard is being set very high by private philanthropy and the generosity of millions of individuals.

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