WASHINGTON - A suggestion by a U.N. official that the world's richest nations were "stingy" irritated the Bush administration, especially when U.S. aid for Asia's earthquake is expected to eventually rise from the millions to more than $1 billion.
The comment reopened the question of how to measure American generosity. The answer ultimately depends on the measuring stick.
The U.S. government is always near the top in total humanitarian aid dollars - even before private donations are counted - but it finishes near the bottom of the list of rich countries when that money is compared to gross national product.
The chief of U.S. Agency for International Development, which distributes foreign aid, was quick to point out Tuesday that foreign assistance for development and emergency relief rose from $10 billion in President Clinton's last year to $24 billion under President Bush in 2003. Secretary of State Colin Powell said assistance for this week's earthquake and tsunamis alone will eventually exceed $1 billion.
"The notion that the United States is not generous is simply not true, factually," USAID chief Andrew Natsios told The Associated Press in an interview. "We've had one of the largest increases of any country in the world."
But even Natsios acknowledged Tuesday that the initial $35 million aid package the administration has crafted for earthquake and tsunami victims has completely drained his agency's emergency relief fund, which already provides assistance from Darfur to Iraq.
That means his agency will need to ask Congress or the White House for more money.
"We just spent it," Natsios said. "We'll be talking to the (White House) budget office... what to do at this point."
Natsios said the Pentagon also is spending tens of millions to mobilize an additional relief operation, with C-130 transport planes winging their way from Dubai to Indonesia with pre-stocked supplies of tents, blankets, food and water bags.
As of early Tuesday, dozens of countries and relief groups had pledged $81 million in help for South and East Asia, said the Geneva-based U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The United States uses the most common measure of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 30 rich nations that counts development aid.
By that measure, the United States spent almost $15.8 billion for "official development assistance" to developing countries in 2003. Next closest was Japan, at $8.9 billion.
That doesn't include billions more the United States spends in other areas such as AIDS and HIV programs and other U.N. assistance.
Measured another way, as a percentage of gross national product, the OECD's figures on development aid show that as of April, none of the world's richest countries donated even 1 percent of its gross national product. Norway was highest, at 0.92 percent; the United States was last, at 0.14 percent.
Such figures were what prompted Jan Egeland - the United Nations' emergency relief coordinator and former head of the Norwegian Red Cross - to challenge the giving of rich nations.
"We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries," Egeland said. "And it is beyond me, why are we so stingy, really.... Even Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become."
Egeland told reporters Tuesday his complaint wasn't directed at any nation in particular.
But Powell clearly took umbrage while making the rounds of the morning television news shows. He said he wished Egeland hadn't made the comment and reaffirmed that the Bush administration will follow up with assistance that could stretch into the billions of dollars.
The White House also defended the U.S. record of giving.
"We outmatch the contributions of other nations combined; we'll continue to do so," Bush spokesman Trent Duffy told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where the president is spending a post-Christmas vacation at his ranch.
Natsios said the Paris organization's figures overlook a key factor - the billions more Americans give each year in private donations.
Americans last year gave an estimated $241 billion to charitable causes - domestic and foreign - according to a study by Giving USA Foundation. That's up from $234 billion in 2002. The foundation did not break down how much was for domestic causes and how much for foreign.
"That's a European standard, this percentage that's used," Natsios said. "The United States, for 40 years, has never accepted these standards that it should be based on the gross national product. We base it on the actual dollars that we spent."
"The reason is that our gross national product is so enormous. And our growth rates are so much higher than the other wealthy nations."
On the Net:
U.S. AID: http://www.usaid.gov/index.html
United Nations: http://ochaonline.un.org/index.asp