Help the poor to help themselves

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 January, 2005, 12:00am

Hong Kong people have always responded favourably to calls to help victims of natural disasters, from those hit by floods in central China in the 1990s to those ravaged by the Asian tsunami on Boxing Day. Since the tsunami hit, almost $400 million, or $55 for every man, woman and child, has been raised, putting Hong Kong ahead of every other country in private donations.

Look closer, however, and we will find that Hong Kong as a community gives far too little on an ongoing basis to the needy overseas. According to last year's edition of World in Figures, published by The Economist, Hong Kong ranked 17th on the wealth league, with per capita gross domestic product at $181,428. But unlike its counterparts with similar levels of affluence, Hong Kong has only a minuscule foreign aid programme in the form of the Disaster Relief Fund.

Set up in 1993, the fund is usually topped up to $50 million every year by transfers from general revenue and makes disbursements in response to applications from aid providers. Following the tsunami catastrophe, it has depleted its coffers after authorising grants totalling $30 million.

By comparison, 11 countries enjoying similar levels of affluence - with per capita GDP plus or minus 5 per cent of ours - routinely give a lot more foreign aid through various forms of development assistance. Of these, nine were among the world's biggest bilateral and multilateral donors, as measured by their amount of foreign aid as a percentage of their total GDP. They were: Britain $186,576 (0.32); Netherlands $186,108 (0.82); Sweden $185,259 (0.81); Austria $182,130 (0.29); Finland $182,052 (0.32); Germany $175,578 (0.27); Canada $174,642 (0.22); Belgium $174,486 (0.27); and France 171,834 (0.32). The per capita GDP figures for two other places within the range, Singapore and Guam, were $162,630 and $157,950, respectively, but the amounts of their foreign aid were not available.

In 2003, some major foreign aid providers called on the government to increase the level of aid and broaden its scope of assistance beyond disaster relief. They noted that the United Nations recommended that rich countries should donate the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of their gross national product in overseas aid, while member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) donated an average of 0.4 per cent of GNP in 1998.

Hong Kong's GDP in 2003 was $1.23 trillion. We would have to donate $8.6 billion if we followed the UN's recommendation, and $4.9 billion if went the OECD way. But the call for more official foreign aid was rejected by the government.

In terms of private donations, Hong Kong people do give generously. Charities report that more and more local donors are making regular monthly contributions. For example, in 2002-03, World Vision raised more than $223 million in Hong Kong from private donors, while Oxfam got $105 million. In 2003, Medecins Sans Frontieres received $60 million in private donations.

It is difficult to calculate the total amount of private donations that Hong Kong people make and how much of that goes to providers of foreign aid. Assuming that private donors gave $1 billion a year to help the needy overseas, that would only constitute 0.08 per cent of our GDP.

In the wake of the Asian tsunami, there have been calls on the government to spend more to help victims. What if we beefed up our official foreign aid programme and extended its scope to cover long-term poverty reduction, education and health programmes in poor countries? While we have always acted admirably in helping victims of natural disasters, we should also help poor countries to develop the ability to help themselves on a sustained basis.

C. K. Lau is the post's executive editor, policy