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This Christmas, get your priorities straight

About the author
Maura Stephens has been a professional journalist and editor since 1977.

“Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7% of its gross national product at market prices”.

It sounds like the Millennium Development Goals of September 2000, but in fact it’s from the international development strategy for the second United Nations development decade in October 1970.

It’s thirty-five years later and so little progress has been made. The very wealthy United States of America, which touts its philanthropy as benefactor to the world, with its citizens in uproar in the mistaken belief that they give too much in foreign aid, is still almost the stingiest of nations when it comes to helping poorer countries. In terms of percentage of its gross national income (GNI) – the figure that has replaced gross domestic product (GDP) as the common indicator – the US gives at a lower rate (except Italy) than any other of the twenty-two industrialised nations on the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD’s) Development Assistance Committee (Dac); although the sheer size of the US economy makes the dollar amount look high.

Norway (number 1 at 0.87%), Luxembourg (0.85%), Denmark (0.84%), and Sweden (0.77%) have long surpassed the 0.7% goals set in 1970 and again in 2000; the rest of the rich nations in the Dac don’t come close. France ranks seventh, at 0.42%; the UK ranks eleventh, at 0.36%; and Canada, in fourteenth place, spends 0.26% of its GNI on aid to developing countries. The US ranks twenty-first, with a miserly 0.16%.

But even if the United States government is cheap, the American people are generous, aren’t they? Well, the amount of giving by individuals in the United States increased in 2004, but as a percentage of income the rate is falling. In 2000, in the early stages of a recession, Americans gave 2.1% of their income to charity, most often to organisations close to home, such as churches, in which they had a personal stake. But in 2004 the figure fell to 1.9%, despite the fact that most Americans, when polled, say they want their country to give generously to help end world poverty.

An earthquake in Pakistan on 8 October killed as many as 87,000 people, left more than 3.5 million homeless and thousands badly wounded. The world response has been dismal. An initial appeal for $550 million for immediate needs yielded less than half that amount. Americans were particularly slow to respond. A month after the quake UN agencies finally received some $90 million for relief; the UN humanitarian aid coordinator there, Jan Vandemoortele, says they’ll need another $50-$60 million per month just to get through the winter.

In late November I heard a radio report about a section of New Orleans where residents were finally allowed back to catalogue the remains of their houses, more than three months after hurricane Katrina devastated the city. One woman, picking through the rubble that remained of her home, was overjoyed to find two items which had survived, relatively unharmed: a piece of crockery and a photograph of her son, who had died of cancer ten years before.

The recent World Trade Organisation meeting in Hong Kong was contentious, to say the least, with developing nations accusing the rich nations of dealing in bad faith and in self-protection, especially in agriculture – the primary livelihood for most people in developing nations. The rich nations are still throwing crumbs to the poor nations, making them wait eight years before they stop the subsidies to rich farmers that penalise the least-developed countries.

A bloated carcass

Around the same time, Americans were camping out overnight in droves, in frigid temperatures, to ensure they got into the stores to buy more things early on “Black Friday,” the day after the national Thanksgiving holiday, on the fourth Thursday of November. A retailer’s boon (or nightmare), it traditionally kicks off the holiday gift-shopping season.

Every year there are stories of people being crushed in the rush to be the first at the sales; there was a report of two women getting into a brawl when one bumped into another at a checkout line. Then there are the millions of cheap plastic snowmen, Santas and Bethlehem manger sets that people spend their hard-earned money on, and the electricity to light them. At the very least, the frenzied shopping and decorating is highly stressful, and compounded when the credit card and utility bills are due in January and February.

It’s difficult to understand, especially when America is engaged in an endless war, the economy is a shambles, energy prices are soaring, the deficit is at record-high levels and the government continues to create tax breaks for the wealthy, while taking money away from environmental protection, social security, education, and health care. It is also worrisome to see this peculiar American tradition of “shopping ’til you drop” exported; others in “developed” countries seem to be engaging in frenzies of acquisition as well. I see this in my homeland of Ireland, where the consumer shopping spree has gone on for the better part of a decade and shows no sign of slowing down.

This behaviour underscores the fact that huge numbers of people are obviously not paying attention to the real state of humanity and the planet.

Witnessing an entire community’s detritus – mouldy and splintered construction materials, scraps of photographs, shards of dishes, waterlogged trash, and, worst of all, bloated animal and human carcasses – as we all have this year in Banda Aceh, New Orleans, and Muzaffarabad – should force us to put things in perspective.

Gifts that would mean most to the recipient cannot be bought, because things are truly unimportant. It’s people who matter, and the planet we share. It’s music and laughter and joy, and getting past pain. Our life stories are not written in what we own, but in whom we love, in how we love, in how we are loved, and in how we contribute to the family of humankind.


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