- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A United Nations official yesterday backpedaled from his claim that the United States is being “stingy” in its response to the Asian earthquake disaster after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell disputed the remark.

“The United States is not stingy,” Mr. Powell said as the United States increased its initial package of disaster relief from $15 million to $35 million.

“We will do more,” he added during a round of morning TV interviews. “I wish that comment hadn’t been made.”

Later in the day, Jan Egeland, United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the assistance pledged by the United States and Europe “very generous.”

“I have been misinterpreted when I yesterday said that my belief that rich countries in general can be more generous,” he added. “This has nothing to do with any particular country or the response to this emergency in the early days. The response so far has been overwhelmingly positive.”

The exchange came as aid agencies struggled to cope with the vast humanitarian catastrophe. The United Nations said it was preparing to issue what could be its largest appeal for donations in its history to cope with its biggest and costliest relief effort.

As of yesterday, dozens of countries and relief groups had pledged more than $100 million in help for South and East Asia, said the Geneva-based U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“With so many international donors, the key is coordinating it so we get the right things in the right places at the right time,” said Jules Frost, director of Emergency Response and Disaster Mitigation for WorldVision, the Christian children’s charity based in Washington state.

Early today, Australia said it would more than triple its emergency aid to nations stricken by the tsunami and announced a joint initiative with the United States, Japan and India to coordinate efforts to cope with the disaster.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the government was adding $25 million Australian (about $19.5 million in U.S. currency) to an earlier pledge of $10 million Australian, with most destined for Indonesia and much of the rest to Sri Lanka.

“So far we’ve committed $35 million, and I think in the end we will have to commit considerably more,” Mr. Downer said. “It’s also a fact of life that we have very great responsibilities — we are a prosperous and a successful country and when it comes to a situation like this we must be prepared to use some of our prosperity to help our fellow human beings.”

Other big donors besides the United States and Australia include Japan ($30 million), Canada ($4 million), Kuwait ($2 million), Germany ($3 million), Netherlands ($2 million) and the European Union, which could release as much as $45 million.

But at least one political consideration is limiting the help sent to the tsunami victims. The British Broadcasting Corp. reports that Sri Lanka rejected a 150-person Israeli rescue mission, reportedly because the team, set to leave yesterday, included 60 soldiers.

Sri Lanka restored diplomatic ties with Israel in 2000, despite objections from the island’s Muslim minority. Instead, a smaller team will escort a convoy carrying emergency supplies, Israeli officials said.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched a new campaign to raise more than 50 million Swiss francs ($44 million) after issuing a flash appeal Sunday for 7.5 million Swiss francs ($6.57 million).

“This is the largest catastrophe we have seen in decades. We haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg yet,” said Markku Niskala, secretary-general of the IFRC.

Describing the U.S. aid as a “line of credit,” State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said the new total of $35 million is bound to be increased. The Bush administration expects U.S. aid for the catastrophe to eventually exceed $1 billion.

“We know the needs will grow,” Mr. Ereli said. “The clear message is that we are committed to helping.”

He appealed to Americans to contribute, as well. “America and Americans have a long and proud history of private charitable donations, and I would expect this case to be no different,” Mr. Ereli said.

The Pentagon announced yesterday that the U.S. Pacific Command will be sending the first troops of a special Joint Task Force 536 to Utapao, Thailand, to help coordinate U.S. military and civilian relief efforts.

“The U.S. intends to use, with Thailand’s cooperation, this military facility as a regional support center for emergency and medical personnel providing assistance throughout the region, as well as a staging area for U.S. military and rescue aircraft, forensic experts, and other relief assistance,” said Navy Capt. Roxie Merritt, a Pentagon spokeswoman.

About 500 troops are expected to take part in the deployment that will come from the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, based in Okinawa, Japan.

Also, the aircraft carrier battle group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is currently on a visit to Hong Kong, has been dispatched to the region, along with 10 accompanying Navy warships and a Coast Guard ship.

Diplomats from some of the hardest hit nations said after an information-sharing and coordination meeting with Mr. Egeland yesterday morning that, while needs varied from country to country, body bags, medical supplies, water-purification pills, food, clothing and bedding were high on everyone’s list.

Mr. Egeland’s “stingy” comment Monday outraged some U.S. officials, especially now that the United Nations is under investigation for enriching itself through illicit transactions with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the burgeoning oil-for-food scandal.

“We are busting our butts to help and comments like that don’t reflect what we are doing,” a State Department official told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity.

Despite his claim of being “misinterpreted,” a review of the transcript of Mr. Egeland’s initial press briefing confirms that he asked reporters at the United Nations why Western countries are “so stingy” and specifically cited the United States as an example of a country whose citizens want to pay more taxes so that foreign aid can be increased.

“An unprecedented disaster like this one should lead to unprecedented generosity,” Mr. Egeland said in his Monday briefing.

Mr. Egeland complained that the United States gives only 0.14 percent of its gross domestic product to foreign development aid, compared with 0.92 percent given by his native Norway. In this category, Norway ranks first and the United States ranks last on a list of 22 industrialized nations compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“The foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of their gross national income,” Mr. Egeland said on Monday. “I think that is stingy really. I don’t think that is very generous.”

He pointed out that only Scandinavian countries like Norway, Sweden and Denmark, as well as the Netherlands and Luxembourg, give at least 0.7 percent of their gross national income, a level suggested by the United Nations 25 years ago.

Mr. Egeland — a former journalist, deputy foreign minister of Norway and head of that nation’s Amnesty International chapter — did not mention that the U.S. government gave $15.8 billion, more than any other nation, to development aid last year, compared to $2 billion by Norway.

The U.S. figure does not include massive infusions of cash to Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor does it include the category of food aid, where the United States is the largest donor in the world, or charitable contributions by private American individuals, churches and other organizations.

The White House was forgiving of Mr. Egeland’s comments. Spokesman Trent Duffy accepted at face value Mr. Egeland’s explanation that his remarks had been misinterpreted.

“I think some of those were taken out of context,” Mr. Duffy said.

But just to be on the safe side, Mr. Duffy went out of his way to tout America’s generosity in response to disasters in Asia and elsewhere.

“The United States and the American people are the single largest contributors to international aid efforts across the globe,” he told reporters near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush will address the press today. “We outmatch the contributions of other nations combined.”

He added: “Those contributions take the form of official government assistance, as well as individual charitable contributions to the Red Cross and to other international and nongovernmental organizations.”

Mr. Duffy declined to specify whether Mr. Bush would pledge still more aid in today’s address, saying that the United States would “continue to get our hands around the size of the effort’s needs.”

Mr. Powell was equally proud of the level of aid from the United States.

“We are the greatest contributor to international relief efforts in the world,” he said on CNN. “We do more to help people who are suffering from lack of food or who are in poverty or suffering from HIV/AIDS.

“And this administration has a particularly good record in increasing the amount of assistance that we give to the world,” he added.

Bill Gertz, Guy Taylor and Marion Baillot contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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