It's safe to say that Americans are among the most if not the most generous people on the planet.
We tend to put our money where our mouth is. We give to feed starving children, save the whales or save the planet. We do it because we believe that many people contributing a little can actually make a difference. We like that feeling.
Lately, we haven't been so generous. In the wake of the Myanmar cyclone and China's earthquake, Americans have been slow to respond. Experts say it's due to the repressive nature of the governments of both nations, not to mention doubts whether the aid will go where it is supposed to go.
And it's the economy, stupid.
It costs more every time we fill up the gas tank, buy groceries or purchase any other consumer good that we need or want. There's simply less discretionary money than there used to be. It's an especially bad time for people who are caught in the real estate crunch. Given all these factors, many Americans have to be more selective about what charitable organization they support.
In recent days, I have been particularly moved by the images of rescue and recovery efforts in China. The grief of parents who have lost their only child is heart-wrenching. The notion of earthquakes destroying schools while they are in session is horrifying.
We know substantially less about the aftermath of the Myanmar cyclone. There has been a dearth of images or reporting from the disaster. Some relief agencies fear that because the disaster is not at the forefront of global consciousness that charitable contributions will suffer as a result.
The junta's isolationist tendencies have vastly delayed relief workers from entering the country and shipments of supplies from reaching their intended destinations. Press coverage of the event has been spotty at best so that people who would ordinarily give don't have an accurate picture of these events.
It doesn't help matters that junta leaders have rebuffed U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon's attempt to discuss the situation, although he is scheduled to visit Myanmar some time this week. Meanwhile, more than two weeks after the cyclone, junta leader Than Shwe made his first visit to a Myanmar relief camp.
All the while, the state-run media has lashed out at critics of Myanmar's laggardly response to the suffering of tens of thousands of cyclone victims. Some 78,000 were killed and another 56,000 are missing, according to The Associated Press.
What I don't understand is, why wouldn't a junta leader accept aid under these circumstances? If a nation's government is essentially its military, doesn't it follow that it must do all it can to ensure the health and well-being of its people especially those who are fit to serve in the military or in future militaries? And what would it hurt to help out other people while they're at it?
Yes, accepting aid comes with strings. The U.S. has been openly critical of Myanmar's abysmal human rights record, particularly the violent crackdown on protests led by Buddhist monks last fall. Accepting aid from the U.S. might be construed as a sign of weakness on the part of the junta.
It's hard to know the real story when junta leaders won't even sit down with the secretary general of the United Nations.
Under these circumstances, it is understandable that Americans are hesitant to give to cyclone recovery efforts.
Oddly enough, the anxiety whether aid to Myanmar will go where it is needed may inadvertently benefit earthquake relief efforts in China.
"I think we may also see a surge of donations for the China relief effort because of people's frustrations with the Myanmar government's resistance to the aid effort there," says Gerard Jacobs, director of the Disaster Mental Health Institute at University of South Dakota, in an Associated Press report.
Since the U.S. and China are such prolific trading partners, people who have a business relationship with China may be more willing to give, too.Experts say it is too soon to know whether the sluggish American economy will affect giving as a whole. But Myanmar's example is instructive. Restricting media access may result in a less-than stellar humanitarian response not because people are unwilling to give but because seeing is believing. No one fully understands the scope of the disaster. As such, normally charitable people are holding pat on making donations until some very important questions can be answered.
Marjorie Cortez, who can ill-understand the point of needless suffering in Myanmar when supplies from all over the world are piling up in nearby Thailand, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected]