The Shifting Politics of Global Giving ; Government Pledges of Relief Top $3 Billion. Why Some Recipients Say, 'No, Thank You.'

By Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 6, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Shifting Politics of Global Giving ; Government Pledges of Relief Top $3 Billion. Why Some Recipients Say, 'No, Thank You.'


Peter Ford writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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