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Strings attached to Washington's disaster relief
Bush's insult to tsunami victims

By Alan Maass | January 14, 2005 | Page 12

WHAT THEY give with one hand, they take away with the other. U.S. government aid to the desperate victims of the Indian Ocean tsunamis is finally arriving. But it has strings attached.

As badly as the money is needed to keep people alive and rebuild, Washington's conditions for disaster relief will make people's lives worse in these countries--while helping to expand U.S. economic and military power over a devastated part of the globe.

By the beginning of this week, the official death toll from the tsunamis that struck a dozen countries December 26 had risen to 165,000--with Aceh in Indonesia alone reporting more than 110,000 victims, and tens of thousands more still missing. Plus, with heavy rains hampering relief efforts, aid workers warn that hundreds of thousands of people are still at risk of starvation and disease.

The tsunami horror produced an almost unprecedented outpouring of charity from around the world. One moving example: Some 800 Malaysian prisoners, including 18 on death row awaiting execution, donated their tiny savings from prison jobs to help the victims. The prisoners earn almost nothing for prison labor, but hundreds decided to give away money meant to help them start a new life.

Compare that to the Bush White House, which had to be shamed into responding at all. At first, the White House said it would donate $15 million--less than one-third of what Republicans plan to spend on their mega-party to celebrate Bush's inauguration--while Bush himself couldn't break away from his leisurely "post-Christmas" vacation to offer any sympathy.

Washington had to increase its promise of aid more than 20 times to the current $350 million--and that's still less than 10 percent of the total billion pledged by the world's richest countries at a summit in Indonesia last week.

Now, U.S. officials are bragging about their generosity, with Colin Powell and Bush's baby brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, traveling to Asia for photo ops in front of scenes of destruction.

The story that isn't being told is how the U.S. and other powerful governments are using disaster relief to advance their political and economic agendas. The most obvious example: The U.S. requires that much of its foreign aid be spent on medicines, agricultural products and manufactured goods imported from the U.S.--no matter how costly they are compared to locally produced alternatives.

Overall, reports the Asia Times newspaper, "Relief organizations have calculated that as much as 75 percent of foreign aid is directly tied to trade access or other economic and political strategies. Some comes with so many strings attached, including preferential tendering on contracts and the hiring of consultants, that only 30-40 percent of dollar value is ever realized."

That's if the money ever shows up. Last month, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami complained that of the $1.1 billion pledged in disaster aid after a devastating earthquake in 2003, only a tiny fraction--$17 million--had arrived. After Hurricane Mitch struck Central America in 1998, governments and international institutions promised nearly $9 billion for relief and reconstruction. Five years later, less than a third of the money had arrived.

Meanwhile, the U.S. isn't missing an opportunity to gain an advantage in its worldwide "war on terror," either.

The media splashed flattering pictures of U.S. Navy helicopters taking part in the relief effort in Aceh across their front pages. But these images will have a different meaning to the Acehnese, who have suffered for decades under the brutal rule of the Indonesian military--which is backed by the U.S. and historically provided with the latest equipment by the Pentagon.

In fact, the Bush administration is taking advantage of the tsunami disaster to relax restrictions on military aid to Indonesia imposed during the 1990s because of widespread human rights abuses committed in rebel areas like East Timor and Aceh. Administration hawks like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz have been trying to ditch these restrictions--in order to help out an "ally" in the the "war on terror."

During his tour of the capital of Banda Aceh, Powell was silent about reports that the Indonesian military was continuing its dirty war in Aceh--but spoke volumes when he promised to lift the ban on providing spare parts for military transport planes. As Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch concluded, "The Indonesians get the message when you have no high-level condemnation of what they're doing."

The horrifying images of the tsunami disaster and its aftermath have moved countless people to want to do something. But for the U.S. government, it's business as usual--exploiting another opportunity to put Corporate America's profits first, and to extend the grip of the U.S. military.

Stingy superpower

RIGHT WINGERS were furious when a United Nations official labeled the U.S. government as "stingy" in its response to humanitarian disasters. But that's the truth--the richest country in the world is the stingiest when it comes to foreign aid. The U.S. government gave just 0.12 percent of U.S. gross domestic product in foreign aid from 2001 to 2003, ranking it below every other industrialized nation.

Washington looks like even more of a miser when you look at who gets the money. Of the $16 billion budgeted for official development assistance, most went to loyal allies carrying out U.S. military and political objectives--like Israel, Egypt and Colombia. Recent increases in the foreign aid budget aren't a sign of generosity, but the result of money spent on the "war on terror"--from aid packages to woo countries like Pakistan, to upgraded security at U.S. facilities overseas.

Last year, the U.S. government spent just $2.4 billion on humanitarian aid for the whole world. The state of Florida alone got almost six times that in emergency funding after last summer's four hurricanes. All in all, the U.S. spends about as much on humanitarian aid as Washington's war makers spend in a week and a half on the occupation of Iraq.

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