A BILL TO PAY

As the world came to grips with the devastation caused by last week's tsunami, tens of millions in relief aid was pledged. But initially the money put up by rich countries appeared to some small, and slow to come. United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland made headlines when he used the word "stingy" to describe the levels of development aid donated by rich countries. He explained his thinking to NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant last Wednesday. Excerpts:

CONANT: What exactly did you mean by your "stingy" remarks?

EGELAND: What I said was that aid levels worldwide are going down, just as the need is increasing. That got mixed up in the ongoing tsunami crisis, as if I was saying the donations were not good enough. The response to the tsunami disaster has been overwhelmingly generous. [Within 72 hours] we recorded $250 million in aid worldwide. That said, it's my job to be worried about aid. We at the United Nations believe 0.7 percent of GDP is a good contribution for rich countries, but most rich countries give about 0.2 percent of GDP in aid. This is what I think is wrong. I've seen too many starving children, too many refugees and too many displaced people not getting enough resources from the affluent world.

U.S. President George W. Bush called you either misguided or ill-informed. Are you upset?

I understand the president's response. I never said anyone in particular was stingy; I spoke about a shared concern among the world's aid organizations that not enough is being done. I sympathize with his situation. I think he was informed about comments I did not make, so I understand why he reacted as he did. Relations are excellent between the United States and the United Nations. We are dependent on the United States for help.

After the uproar the United States pledged additional money. Maybe some good came of the misunderstanding?

If this whole thing can lead to a discussion as to how we can get growing economies to do more to fight poverty, illiteracy and endemic disease, then I'm glad.

So how can richer countries do better?

We have to look at the gulf countries, Asian countries, Latin American countries. There are countries that should become bigger donors. They are now at the economic level that some of our biggest donors were at in the 1970s, when the aid community really emerged.

Is the United States handling this crisis well?

The United States is showing its good and generous side here, as it has with the Darfur emergency. But the problem lies with forgotten emergencies like Somalia, northern Uganda or eastern Congo. In eastern Congo about 1,000 people die each day from neglect, poverty and preventable disease. In the next three to four months as many people may die in eastern Congo as died in the tsunami. There is too little attention paid to these forgotten emergencies.

Has there been a decrease or increase in aid over recent years?

We had less money for foreign aid in 2004 than we had in 2003 or 2002. Traditional donor countries are experiencing domestic problems. [And] countries with growing economies haven't compensated for this. We've ended up having to cut rations for displaced people. That said, humanitarian relief is also at its best now. We can reach anywhere in the world in 24 hours as long as it's physically possible to get there.

Some say there may be a silver lining to relief efforts in places like Aceh and Sri Lanka.

Maybe. Yes. I hope aid can lead to confidence-building measures by relief crossing into disputed areas. We're reaching out to various ethnic groups, and this could possibly lead to conflict prevention. I've been heartened to see the outpouring of help from Asian nations to each other. India is one of the biggest donors. You really see the world at its best when it responds to humanitarian disasters like this. Nations and people come together in record time.

So what's the verdict? Is the rich world stingy or not?

The rich world has a moral obligation to help. The rich world is getting richer. This is not about the United States or any country in particular. There are too many people in absolute poverty that are getting too little help. The rich world, 30 or 40 nations, should be able to combat poverty. The bill is really small enough for us to pick up.

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