With casualty estimates having surpassed 100,000, the December 26 disaster in the Indian Ocean has led to an international outpouring of aid pledges. Governments have taken the lead, with Japan having pledged $500 million, the Bush Administration a planned commitment of $350 million, and other nations small and large contributing to a balance currently estimated at $2 billion.
Catholics have taken a leading role in driving private philanthropy, with Catholic churches across America having taken up special collections this past weekend to support work by Catholic Relief Services (CRS). In total, CRS has committed $25 million this week to recovery efforts in the twelve affected countries of South Asia. With 4,000 committed staff in 94 countries around the world, CRS should be a source of pride for all American Catholics, and indeed all Americans, in their efforts to address the combined consequences of war, poverty and disease among the world's poorest citizens.
In a statement circulated this week, CRS President Ken Hackett said, "I am overwhelmed and deeply touched by the immediate and magnificent outpouring of generosity shown by donors from around the world. The response proves that we do live in a global community bound by compassion and an inspiring solidarity. The needs are still tremendous but I am inspired by those of you have found it in your heart to make such vital donations. I hope you will read the donor stories on our website so you will get an insight into the true goodness of the humanity. Thank you."
When natural disasters of this magnitude occur, many of us feel helpless to respond individually in a meaningful way. We applaud the willingness of the Bush Administration to rise to the occasion on our behalf. The USS Abraham Lincoln and a convoy of ships have arrived to provide supplies and logistical capabilities, in addition to airlifts from a US military facility in Thailand. The Administration cannot be faulted for its initial underestimation of the relief needs brought on by the gargantuan earthquake and resulting tsunami.
Nonetheless, it is worth reflecting for a moment on our government's response to the incredible need in South Asia through the lens of our national commitments in Iraq, and our responsibility for the parallel suffering there. Estimates from last October by researchers at Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities estimated that more than 100,000 Iraqis had been killed to that point as a result of Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq. This places the Iraq War in the same ballpark as the South Asian tsunami in terms of the magnitude of the total casualties inflicted, with both situations imposing incalculable emotional suffering on the affected populations.
The Administration's current stated commitment to relief in South Asia, which Mr. Bush indicated this week would be expended over a period of years, represents slightly more than two days' worth of the current American expenditures in Iraq—a stunning $1 billion per week, or more than $150 per year for every child, man and woman in the United States. The major difference of course is that most of the money in Iraq is leading to the infliction of more suffering and more animosity, while US Ambassador John Negroponte sits on $18 billion in allocated but unspent Iraqi relief funds. This is a striking study in contrasts, with the US Military being exploited on the one hand by a civilian authority to wreak havoc in Iraq, and on the other hand demonstrating its unalloyed capacity to accomplish good in the Indian Ocean basin.
By this standard, the comparatively small amount being dedicated by governments around the world to the assistance of more than five million affected people in South Asia will nonetheless be welcome as emblematic of what collective action can do to help desperate people reconstruct their homes and livelihoods. We as Catholics have an opportunity to encourage our government to do more, in part by writing with thanks and encouragement to Mr. Bush (firstname.lastname@example.org). We also have an opportunity to donate directly to relief efforts being carried out by Catholic Relief Services, by going to this link: http://www.catholicrelief.org