- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2005

U.N. and private aid officials are quietly praising Jan Egeland, the U.N. emergency relief coordinator who last week suggested that Western nations are “stingy” with support for tsunami victims, as Germany prepares a reported $665 million in relief.

Since his disparaging comment, which Mr. Egeland said was misinterpreted, nations have been one-upping each other with pledges of aid and debt relief.

The German government is expected to approve today up to $665 million of aid for regions devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami, a figure that would make it the largest donor so far, ahead of Japan with $500 million and the United States with $350 million. Saudi Arabia yesterday tripled its pledge to $30 million.

“You’ve seen [countries] outdoing each other,” said one aid official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The relief is a welcome outpouring that will help coastal areas ravaged by the Dec. 26 tsunami. At least 150,000 are dead, 500,000 injured and up to 5 million are lacking basic services, the United Nations said yesterday.

Initially, U.N. bureaucrats and aid officials feared that Mr. Egeland’s Dec. 27 remark was an unnecessary jab at the United States, one of the few nations with deep pockets, military assets in the region and the ability to provide timely delivery of aid and expertise during a crisis.

“It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really,” the Norwegian-born U.N. official said. “Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, [of] how rich we have become.”

At the time, the Bush administration had promised $15 million in assistance.

But as more money started to pour in, officials at several aid agencies said, Mr. Egeland’s comment seemed to be a more effective method of scoring donations than the usual dryly worded appeal or photos of frightened children.

“It’s had a positive effect in a perverse way,” the aid official said.

U.N. officials do not attribute the rising flow of money purely to Mr. Egeland’s comment — disaster aid has been generous in the past. But it did focus international attention on donor nations.

“Even though he didn’t name the U.S. or any other country, it certainly cut to the quick. And nobody wants to be seen as shirking their duty and humanitarian obligations here. While the remark may have been maladroit and, on the surface, unwelcome, it has, despite that, had a positive impact,” a U.N. official said.

Mr. Egeland yesterday continued to prod the West, noting during a press conference that aid pledged so far has topped $2 billion, but emphasizing that donors in the past have not always come through with promised funds.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on German radio yesterday said he would propose his country’s higher payment at a special Cabinet meeting, although officials have not officially announced a final figure.

“It was clear we would need a lot more [than the original pledge of $26.5 million] to assist with the reconstruction,” Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said.

Private donations also have been flowing quickly to relief groups. Two lawmakers with responsibility for tax legislation yesterday said they would try to reward people and corporations making donations this month.

Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, proposed that tsunami disaster relief donations made through Jan. 31 could be deducted from 2004 tax returns. Under current law, taxpayers would have to wait until next year’s filing season to claim a tax deduction for tsunami-related gifts made after New Year’s Eve.

“This proposal allows American companies and individuals to receive their deduction now rather than having to wait until next year to claim it,” Mr. Baucus said.

American relief charities as of Monday had received more than $163 million in private donations, and corporations had added millions more.

The donor generosity also creates challenges: how much to ask for and how to spend the money effectively. On Monday, one group, Doctors Without Borders, asked donors to stop giving.

“We didn’t want to exceed our own capacity to respond. People need to know when they give earmarked funds, we will not use them for anything else,” said Kris Torgeson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. branch of the international aid group.

As of the weekend, Doctors Without Borders had received $50 million in donations, including about $20 million from the United States.

“I’m very impressed [Doctors Without Borders] would do that. But it is important that charities be honest with public, whether they are spending for emergency or longer-term needs,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog.

The institute criticized some charities after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, saying the groups used the tragedy to raise funds and then spent the money on unrelated projects.

Mr. Borochoff yesterday said the tsunami recovery would require significant resources over a long period and is unlikely to lead to any fund-raising scandals among major charities.

“Some groups only focus on emergency relief. Others will be looking at longer term. It may not be as exciting for people to want to support this in a few months, but it is important,” he said.

Charities, meanwhile, continue to plan for emergency relief and longer-term projects.

The scope of the disaster has left some groups asking for millions of dollars more than they originally thought necessary.

CARE asked for $2.5 million the day after the tsunami struck. As of yesterday, the relief group was asking for $25 million in donations and had received $11.5 million.

“As the hours turned into days, and the situation was revealed, we continued to increase what we will need for emergency response and rebuilding efforts,” said Lurma Rackley, a CARE spokeswoman.

• David Crossland contributed to this report from Germany.

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