Yes to US Aid, No to USAID

How generous are Americans? Inconceivably so. An official collecting private donations for victims of the Asian tsunami has described American largess as a “tidal wave of generosity.”

How generous are Americans compared to everyone else? Canada’s Fraser Institute measured the "generosity gap" that separates Americans and Canadians, in both "the extent and the depth of charitable giving." It found that "the average donation in the U.S. is three-and-a-half times more than in Canada." As a percentage of their aggregate income, Americans give more to charity than citizens of any other country.

Foreign governments have been showcasing the "charitable" nature of their wealth transfers to the tsunami-stricken regions. Yet as hard as they try, they don’t come close to private American charitable donations in any given year. Add up the amounts governments have appropriated from their citizens to help victims of the tidal wave. The total (including pledges from the World Bank and the Asian Bank of Development) comes to $3.7 billion. This is a mere 1.5 percent of what Americans gave privately in 2003.

According to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel (AAFRC), "American individuals, estates, foundations, and corporations" gave $241 billion to charity in 2003 – privately and voluntarily, a sum that excludes the cost of volunteer work.

Of course, most of the donated $241 billion is not private foreign aid. However, as Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis points out, private foreign aid greatly exceeds U.S. government aid. And the former, unlike the latter, can be channeled to recipients the donor – not government – favors.

The late Sir Peter Bauer, author of Dissent on Development and the foremost authority on foreign aid, was acutely aware of the importance to civil society of voluntary giving. Foreign aid he saw as "outside the area of volition and choice." Concerning the "morality" of "taxpayer’s money compulsorily collected," he said:

"[C]ontributors not only have no choice but quite generally do not even know they are contributing. It is sometimes urged that in a democracy taxpayers do have a choice, which restores the moral element to foreign aid. This objection is superficial. The taxpayer has to contribute to foreign aid whether he likes it or not and whether he has voted in its favor or against it."

If the extent, the depth, and the consistency of America’s voluntary giving negates the need for political pelf, the president and his media embeds are not letting on. Instead, Bush has taken to touting USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.

Heir to the Marshall Plan, USAID is an arm of the American government and an executor of its policies, including the expansion of "the global community of democracies" as "a key objective of U.S. foreign policy." USAID maintains a presence in nearly a hundred countries, the newly "liberated" Iraq and Afghanistan included. Bush claims the agency is helping "democracy take root." And with typical fatuity, he adds that USAID is "instrumental to making the world a better place and … to protecting the American people."

Bush’s claim that "the men and women of USAID have been at the center of the response [to the tsunami]" is highly unlikely. That honor goes to the non-profit organizations and their private donors. Aid is their art – and their vocation. As a spokesman for an NGO reminded the president, "We have been there for 30 or 40 years.” Most major charities, the Salvation Army for example, have staff stationed in – and serving – most of the areas affected by the disaster, most of the world, in fact.

Consequently, private charities such as Oxfam and the International Red Cross know the lay of the land and have used that knowledge to build the infrastructure needed to funnel funds and food to the needy. This they achieve with minimum overheads and personnel. And, unlike the American military, they are unintrusive.

Indeed, private non-profits are many times more efficient than lumbering bureaucracies like USAID and the foreign equivalents it "interfaces" with. With pensions and perks in perpetuity, the mandarins manning these departments sell "love and compassion" at a premium.

Private non-profits are not only exceedingly more efficient but infinitely more ethical. Oxfam’s trustees, for example, take "ultimate responsibility in law for the charity, its assets and activities." You might hear a great deal about government accountability, but when last did you see it in action? Condoleezza’s contortions at the 9/11 commission’s hearings? The time she claimed that a memo warning of planes doubling up as missiles was nothing but "historical," inactionable intelligence?

Some private charities, for example Doctors Without Borders USA, a branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres, have lately received more funds than they can use. They duly told their supporters they had raised enough to meet immediate tsunami-related needs. Imagine that. Howard Stern will discover modesty before a government official discovers such fiscal restraint and veracity.

Charities such as Oxfam aim to empower poor people globally; foreign aid, being a government-to-government transfer, invariably empowers and consolidates bureaucratic fiefdoms. Wherever USAID becomes established, it feeds the parasitic political class in the recipient countries at the expense of the productive private sector. As these governments fatten, real GDP growth is stunted. And where USAID leads, Halliburton and other corporate leeches follow – USAID provides these corrupt camp followers with direct infusions of taxpayers’ funds.

By Jan. 5, private American donors had collected for Asia almost as much as the Bush government had unconstitutionally "pledged" on their behalf. And even as Bush’s appropriation reached $350 million, private donations continued to keep pace – and more.

America’s generosity in response to the Asian disaster makes USAID and other compassionate pickpockets as unnecessary as they are unethical.