Does size matter?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Jan. 6 2005 1:56 PM

Does Size Matter?

The international press comments as tsunami relief grows competitive.

The after-effects of the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami continue to dominate European papers, yet as the world's developed nations enter what almost seems like a bidding war over who can appear more generous, a few European papers are beginning to ask if things aren't getting a bit out of hand.

Germany's center-right daily Die Welt was rather blunt about it. "The government was certainly right to increase its pledges, which were modest to begin with. But was it necessary immediately to bring figures into play which give the impression that nations are engaged in a rather selfish donors' competition?"

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The figure referred to is Berlin's pledged $674 million in aid. Only Australia—whose prime minister, John Howard, received a standing ovation at a Jakarta summit when he pledged a cool billion Australian dollars ($764 million)—beats Germany in the benevolence contest.

Northern Europeans, with their chilly winters, fat paychecks, and long holidays, are partial to Southeast Asian beach getaways; roughly 1,000 Germans are still missing in the wake of the disaster. Sweden was also among the hardest hit European countries; many are calling it the largest loss of life from a single cause since the last world war. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl was vacationing in Sri Lanka when the tidal waves struck and compared the devastation to that of World War II. "It reminded me of the images from the war that I lived through as a youth. It looked like a bomb attack," he told the tabloid Bild, Germany's leading daily.

Despite this, Die Welt's seemingly curmudgeonly sentiment is not limited to the right side of the political spectrum. "By now, everything almost seems to be one size too big," mused Die Tageszeitung, a left-leaning paper based in Berlin. But plenty of German papers beg to differ. Disparaging the aid by questioning its motives turns logic on its head, say Frankfurter Rundschau: By that reasoning, "the stingiest government would then have to be seen as the most honourable one." Besides, "[m]illions of people urgently waiting for help and a future do not want to know whether the drinking water from their new water treatment facility is flowing as a result of personal or political ... ulterior motives." (German translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

In Britain, meanwhile, disparaging comments about the three-minute memorial silence observed across Europe on Wednesday have sparked a miniature tempest. In a widely quoted piece (not available online) in the conservative tabloid Daily Mail, historian and former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings scoffed at the widely observed moment of silence, calling it a "political stunt" that "diminishes the only such event that matters, our annual two minute commemoration of those who fell in the two world wars." Other crabby critics chimed in, calling it an empty gesture of state-sponsored emotionalism.  

A comment in the antipodean Age praised not only the size of Australia's donation, but also the manner in which Sydney structured it. While other developed countries rush to endorse the rock-star chic of debt relief, Australia's aid package calls for nothing of the kind. Good move, says the paper: With a direct donation overseen jointly by Indonesia and Australia, taxpayers can rest assured that the money is going where it's needed, rather than fleecing the pockets of crooked officials. "Mr Howard is also on solid ground in eschewing the debt moratorium push. … In the case of Indonesia, which is still riddled with corruption, [funds freed by debt relief] could well be siphoned off, possibly to its military, whose equipment is in a sorry state."

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.

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