A Look at the United States’ Response to the 2004 Tsunami

The deadly 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake will be remembered for decades to come. More than 200,000 people were killed by the ensuing tsunami and an additional 1.5 million were displaced. The combined total human, environmental, and economic impact will have economists debating this for years to come. Fortunately, the humanitarian response was even greater. Generous countries and individuals all over the world donated food, money, and other forms of aid to the ravaged areas; the amount of aid donated was in the billions of dollars. A notable exception, though, was North America, specifically the United States. Following the disaster, the United States pledged a meager $15 million. After UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland reportedly stated that charitable contributions by some rich countries were disgraceful, the United States pledged another $20 million. At a time when Norway and Australia, were pledging around $1 billion each, all that the United States, the world’s only superpower, would muster up was a pathetic $35 million. However, in large part due to public pressure, the United States finally gave in and started making a difference with a commitment of $500 million.

The United States’ numerous obligations in other parts of the world, especially the Iraq War, and the existing budget deficit are valid arguments. However, the total amount donated by the United States government on a per capita basis was a paltry $6.76, as compared with Norway’s $66.38 per person. Understandably, one cannot expect the United States to shoulder all of the costs, however, a much more active and vigorous role should have been taken by the world’s richest country from the start. The countless unnecessary deaths caused by the immediate effects of the tsunami, from shortages of food and water to the spread of diseases, mainly because of unsanitary conditions, may have been partially prevented through earlier mobilization and distribution.

The diplomatic benefits of these relief efforts are immeasurable. Needless to say, the goodwill that concerted US efforts could have shown in Asia would ultimately have been more effective and had a much greater impact than all of its unfavorable overseas military campaigns. The United States could have accomplished a great deal more at a smaller price, while at the same time doing good work by helping those in need.

The effect of this tsunami will be remembered for years to come, and so will the United States’ response to this tragedy. The outpouring support from all over the world reaffirmed the reality that we are all humans and we need to look after each other, and those more fortunate have a moral duty to help out those who are not as fortunate. Inevitably, that the United States eventually demonstrated significant responsibility in its handling of the crisis, but it was too little too late. The world looks on to the United States to solve many of its problems and the United States has agreed to shoulder on plenty them, because we understand that with great power comes great responsibility.

At the moment, the United States has a tragedy on its own soil; many countries and foreign relief organizations have contributed to and donated resources to help the unfortunate misplaced citizens of New Orleans and Mississippi. Maybe after hurricane Katrina we shall all be more sympathetic to others’ sufferings and, expectantly, more charitable. Let us hope that another momentary lapse in generosity, at least on our part, does not occur again.

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