Tsunami: Where US Media Failed
Dr. Michael Saba, firstname.lastname@example.org
A friend posed a question to me. He said, â€œYou write about these things all of the time. Does it make sense that the US has allocated $87 billion to spend on Iraq and only $35 million to help the people of South and Southeast Asia devastated by the earthquake and tsunami?â€ Is the US â€œthe most generous nation in the worldâ€ as stated by President Bush or is it one of the most â€œstingyâ€ countries as mentioned by Jan Egeland, the UN relief coordinator? And how have Americans and the American media reacted to one of the largest natural disasters that mankind has experienced?
Michael Saba is an Arab-American, involved in improving US-Saudi relations, whom I consider a friend. This article does a good job in noting that the American media has not noticed Saudi disaster relief efforts (the subject of the preceding post), but does a less creditable job in accurately portraying US efforts.
I think the USG made a serious blunder in its handling of the public affairs aspects of its disaster relief program. Everything it did was correct and by-the-book, but the way it announced the efforts was lacking.
When there is a local disaster, US ambassadors can call on a pot of discretionary funds–usually in the $50-100 thousand range–that can be spent immediately. In the case of the tsunami, it soon became clear that these funds would be insufficient, and the USG announced $35 million in already allocated funds (It’s a federal crime to commit funds that are not authorized by Congress, which happens to be out of session). If it is a major disaster (which usually involve only one country), US Agency for International Development (USAID) sends out Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) to assess the scope of the disaster and what types of assistance are most needed. These teams then report back to Washington on their assessment and start working with local NGOs and other groups to ensure that the aid is directed appropriately and efficiently. This is exactly what was done in the case of the tsunami. As a result of these DART assessments, the USG has pledged $350 million.
What the USG failed to do was to make this process clear from the beginning. Instead, official silence led to editorials talking about how $35 million was insufficient. Of course it was insufficient, but that was the only money that could legally be committed at that time. The full $350 million (and I’m sure the figure will go much higher) cannot be committed until Congress authorizes it.
In a “normal” disaster, these steps would go largely unnoticed, but in this instance, the need was so great that silence was taken by some journalists to mean indifference. It was not.
UPDATE: Greg Djerijian at The Belgravia Dispatch has an excellent post on this issue, including a partial transcript of Secretary of State Powell on Meet the Press.
UPDATE: The Letters to the Editor page of the Arab News has several comments from Saudi readers complaining about the imbalance of this article. They point out that if anyone is to be ashamed at the level of support given, it is Gulf Arab States. Interesting reading.
Outside the Beltway readers might be interested in this as well.