SCMP Monday, May 29, 2000


Funding or philanthropy?

The Asian financial crisis notwithstanding, Hong Kong achieved an enviable per capita Gross Domestic Product of $179,808 last year, a figure which puts SAR residents among the wealthiest in the world.

The figure conceals as much as it reveals. Income disparities remain widespread, with the Gini coefficient - a statistical index that measures the distribution of wealth in a society - indicating a widening gap between the richest and poorest sectors of the population. Yet there is no denying that Hong Kong is an affluent society where even the poorest families are assured of food, shelter and other basic necessities unavailable to the underprivileged elsewhere.

So it seems a shame that Hong Kong's official contribution to foreign aid has been minimal. In the past financial year, the Disaster Relief Fund, the SAR Government's only vehicle for disbursing such aid, donated merely $31.62 million, or about 0.002 per cent of income.

By comparison, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) contributed on average of about 0.4 per cent of GDP to foreign aid for a wide variety of purposes, not just for disaster relief.

But that is not the full story. Hong Kong people have been dipping into their pockets to fund overseas aid agencies. In 1998-99, they donated $219.5 million to three major international relief agencies - World Vision, Oxfam and Unicef, the UN children's fund. Donations to other lesser known charities are harder to establish, but are estimated to be in the range of tens of millions of dollars. Even assuming total private donations amounted to only $220 million that year, the figure represents 0.18 per cent of GDP.

Understandably, international aid agencies want the SAR Government to contribute more to meet their needs. They are disappointed the narrow terms of reference of the Disaster Relief Fund preclude funding to poverty relief or social development programmes in poor countries. However, they are reminded that the SAR is not a sovereign country and comparing it with OECD countries is inappropriate. The fund's limited scope serves an important purpose of preventing the SAR from getting embroiled in the politics of foreign aid.

There may be scope for the Disaster Relief Fund budget to be increased so that it could help more victims struck by disasters. But aid agencies seeking to secure more money from the SAR are advised to appeal directly to Hong Kong people, who have a decent record as philanthropists.