Sunday, January 02, 2005

Beacon No. 18: Racing the Saudis


It's a given that the U.S. and any other country that's able should give lavishly to victims of the recent tsunami purely on humanitarian grounds. But any disaster also creates ways of "doing well by doing good," and observers shouldn't ignore the soft-power implications of relief efforts. Below are some thoughts on this topic.

Many observers have noted that the tsunami has created a chance for the U.S. to spend lavishly and boost its image in countries with large Muslim populations like Indonesia, India and Malaysia. This is especially important because overall U.S. giving is in direct competition with private giving from other nations, particularly Saudi citizens who, following big disasters, tend to charter the world's available 700-series cargo planes and fill them with relief supplies. Although the U.S. can't compete directly with long-term Saudi mosque-building across southern Asia, it certainly can make a big impression now with its relief efforts.

Although the amount the U.S. government said it would donate rose nearly every day last week (it was $315 million this morning), I read one estimate that private charitable giving earmarked for tsunami victims could total 2-3 times the federal figure—a strong testament to the soft power of U.S.-based NGOs like Catholic Relief Services. Amounts given to the American Red Cross were already in the tens of millions, and there will probably be a massive influx of cash from collection baskets at weekend religious services. Watch for a big spike in estimates of private U.S. giving as thousands of ministers, priests and rabbis cart chunks of change to their banks Monday morning.

This past July, the DoD and others gamed responses to complex humanitarian disasters in an exercise called Strong Angel II. Subtitled "Critical Information Management within Austere Environments," Strong Angel II's purpose was to assess and improve coordination among the military, NGOs, victims and other actors in case of a large-scale disaster. Now the world will get a chance to see a tremendously larger version of this exercise carried out in real time, as the Marines and Navy spread U.S., third-country and NGO relief supplies throughout the affected areas. Lessons learned in the next few weeks are likely to help the military in the future as smaller disasters hit South Asia and elsewhere.

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