Abstract

One means of curbing anti-Americanism is to promote positive views of the United States and its people. The purpose of this study was to assess whether nearly a billion dollars pledged by the United States for tsunami aid instilled good will among Sri Lankans. Of 478 respondents, most considered both the American government (75%) and the American people (84%) to be generous. Half claimed that they liked the American people, a substantial increase over attitudes measured 2 years back, post-9/11. While fewer than half supported U.S. involvement in Iraq, the extent of this support increased significantly from post-9/11 levels, suggesting that humanitarian aid may result in broadened support for unrelated U.S. initiatives.

After the tsunami of December 26, 2004, the United States government and its citizens pledged nearly a billion dollars in aid, predominantly to the most severely afflicted countries, Sri Lanka (where more than 30,000 died) and Indonesia (the site of more than 107,000 deaths) (Becker 2005; VanRooyen and Leaning 2005). While such substantial aid presumably was well received, we cannot assume that American generosity can assuage widely entrenched global anti-Americanism that has been exacerbated by the unpopularity of the U.S. presence in Iraq (Nye 2002; Chomsky 2003; Eland 2004; Rubin, Rubin, and Rubin 2004; Merry 2005).

According to the results of the Pew Global Attitudes Project (2005), in understanding anti-Americanism, we must consider that sentiments about America and Americans can differ widely by study population. In their sample of 1,022 Indonesians (who were part of a larger 16-country study of nearly 17,000 interviewees), the Pew researchers found that positive opinions of the United States in Indonesia jumped from 15% in 2003 (pretsunami) to 38% in May 2005 (posttsunami). These data are consistent with their finding that 79% of Indonesians claimed that “U.S. aid to tsunami victims in Southeast Asia” made them feel “more favorable” toward the United States. In addition, the proportion that believed that the United States takes Indonesia's interests into account “at least a fair amount” more than doubled compared with 2003 (from 25% to 59%). In contrast, however, only 13% of Indonesians believed that removing Saddam Hussein from power made the world safer, while the proportion of Indonesians who had a favorable view of the American people (rather than the United States as a country) declined from 65% in 2002 (pretsunami) to 46% in 2005 (posttsunami).

While valuable, these data from tsunami-stricken Indonesia do not provide insight into the impact of aid in Sri Lanka, a country with vastly different political, religious, and cultural values. Nor can the Pew data from the geographically proximal India be generalized to Sri Lanka, for similar reasons. To understand fully how tsunami aid can affect attitudes in recipient countries, we must consider data from both of the nations most affected. Some may believe that it is obvious that aid pledged would improve the image of the United States. Yet, coming from a country often perceived as rich and arrogant, even substantial U.S. aid could be seen as self-serving and thus incapable of promoting gratitude toward America and Americans. In addition, it is important to assess whether humanitarian efforts can color individuals' perceptions of other, nonhumanitarian American endeavors, namely the U.S. presence in Iraq, widely considered to be stoking anti-Americanism. Contrasting views posttsunami to attitudes collected post-9/11 (Dundes and Rajapaksa 2004) provide a basis of comparison in the assessment of how attitudes might have changed in response to the tsunami aid. Both feelings of good will and more positive assessments of our foreign policy internationally have the potential to decrease the justification of the United States as a target for terrorism.

Study Population

Sri Lanka is an island nation of 19 million people located 29 km off the southeast coast of India. As a consequence of over 150 years of British rule (until 1948), a segment of the population (10–20%) speaks English. U.S. assistance to Sri Lanka has totaled more than $1.63 billion since Sri Lanka's independence in 1948. Through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the United States has contributed to Sri Lanka's economic growth with projects designed to reduce unemployment, improve housing, develop the Colombo Stock Exchange, modernize the judicial system, and improve competitiveness (USAID 2005a). At the June 2003 Tokyo Donors' Conference on Sri Lanka, the United States pledged $54 million, including $40.4 million of USAID funding (U.S. Department of State 2005). In studying the impact of aid, researchers must be aware of complicating circumstances stemming from terrorism by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil Hindu group formed in 1976, seeking an independent homeland in the largely Buddhist Sinhalese country. The United States has denounced the LTTE as a terrorist organization. Over 60,000 lives have been lost from 1983 until the early 2000s in the interethnic dispute. Tamil separatists have argued that while foreign aid may not be allocated to military resources used against them, any additional resources free otherwise earmarked money that could be used to fight Tamil resistance efforts (Tamilnation.org 1998). Tamil Tigers alleged that the Sri Lankan government impeded tsunami aid destined for Tamil areas, while the government expressed concern about whether aid might be used to help the Tamil rebuild their armies—and whether the aid would reach the Sinhalese living in Tamil-controlled areas (Frerks and Klem 2005). Thus, political fallout from relief efforts (Baldwin 1969; Van Belle, Rioux, and Potter 2004), as well as difficulties in equitably dispensing aid (Kent 1983; Thottam, 2005), are additional factors that can temper feelings of good will toward donor countries.

Methods

The data presented in this paper were collected in and around Colombo, Sri Lanka, in early February through late March 2005, following the December 2004 tsunami. Surveys were distributed by a volunteer who is a close associate of the co-authors to English-speaking Sri Lankans in the Kandy district (central province), Kurunagela and Chilaw (north-western province), Negombo (western province), Chilaw (north-western), Trincomalee (eastern province), and in different parts of the city of Colombo city and its suburbs. Groups surveyed include faculty in Colombo universities, employees at the International Broadcast Bureau (IBB) (formerly the Voice of America) in Chilaw, high school and middle school staff, employees in the Transport Authority, personnel in hospitals and dispensaries, and police officers. The survey measured reactions to aid granted and provides a 2-year follow-up comparison with data collected about 3 months after September 11, 2001. The survey was a two-paged Institutional Review Board–approved instrument that asked English-speaking respondents about their views of European and U.S. tsunami aid, as well as attitudes about the United States.

Respondents answered close-ended questions by selecting whether they strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statements. In addition to demographic data, they were asked whether they liked Americans, were indifferent to Americans, or disliked Americans. Finally, they were queried about whether they thought the tsunami was a way for God to communicate disapproval about human behavior and the extent to which they had previously been aware of the risk/existence of tsunamis. Of the 600 surveys distributed, 478 were returned, an 80% response rate. Data were analyzed using SPSS version 11.0 software (SPSS Inc. Chicago, IL, U.S.A.).

Results

The sample was 51% male, 81% Sinhalese, and 61% Buddhist. One-third of the sample was in their 20s, about a third was in their 30s, and another third was age 40+. Most (81%) were at least high school educated. Most (90%) did not lose any family members in the tsunami, although nearly half (46%) lost at least one friend, and about three-quarters said their daily activities were somewhat or greatly affected by the tsunami.1 Few (12%) had ever visited the United States or Europe (20%), although 28% had a family member living in the United States. Nearly two-thirds (63%) said they would or probably would live in the United States if given the opportunity to do so (Table 1).

Table 1

Respondent Characteristics of Tsunami Sample: (n=478) Versus 9/11 Sample: (n=335)

 Tsunami (%) 9/11 (%) 
Sex   
Male 51 57 
Female 49 43 
Ethnicity   
Sinhalese 81 69 
Tamil 11 
Religion   
Buddhist 61 52 
Catholic 26 28 
Hindu 
Muslim 11 
Other 
Age: up to age 40 68 77 
Education   
Less than high school/in high school 19 30 
High school graduate: 51% 42 — 
College graduate: 19% 11 — 
Education postcollege/professional degree 11 17 
If would live in the United States if possible   
Yes 35 29 
Probably yes 28 26 
Probably not 14 16 
No 23 29 
Percent of respondents with a family member in the United States 28 38 
 Tsunami (%) 9/11 (%) 
Sex   
Male 51 57 
Female 49 43 
Ethnicity   
Sinhalese 81 69 
Tamil 11 
Religion   
Buddhist 61 52 
Catholic 26 28 
Hindu 
Muslim 11 
Other 
Age: up to age 40 68 77 
Education   
Less than high school/in high school 19 30 
High school graduate: 51% 42 — 
College graduate: 19% 11 — 
Education postcollege/professional degree 11 17 
If would live in the United States if possible   
Yes 35 29 
Probably yes 28 26 
Probably not 14 16 
No 23 29 
Percent of respondents with a family member in the United States 28 38 

Most respondents either did not know of the existence of tsunamis (before December 26, 2004) (61%) or were unaware that Sri Lanka was at any risk of danger from a tsunami (26%). When asked whether they believed that the tsunami was God communicating disapproval of human behavior, a number of respondents agreed that the tsunami reflected God's disapproval of human behavior in general (worldwide) (43%), 24% thought the tsunami resulted from God's condemnation of the areas hit by the tsunami, and only 8% thought those who died were killed because of divine punishment for misdeeds.

Most respondents considered donations pledged by Americans (84%) to be generous. They also regarded aid pledged by European governments (90%) to be magnanimous, but were slightly less likely to deem U.S. government aid to be generous (75%). The majority (60%) of respondents believed that U.S. aid was granted altruistically, without an ulterior motive, while at the same time, an equal proportion thought that the primary goal of the U.S. aid was to promote a positive image. Forty-three percent (43%) believed that the U.S. presence in Iraq was more positive than negative. There were no statistically significant demographic differences in the proportion supporting the United States in Iraq: 45% of Sinhalese and 33% of Tamils; 47% of Catholics, 44% of Buddhists, and 37% of Muslims; 46% of males, and 35% of females. Those in their 40s were most supportive of the U.S. presence in Iraq (55%), while the lowest degree of support was among those aged 16–19 (25%). About half (49%) believed that Americans should be allowed to adopt tsunami orphans.

Comparison Results with Post-9/11 Data

In order to more deeply understand how U.S. aid may have changed or improved Sri Lankan perceptions about America and Americans, we need a basis of comparison, which can be found by examining data collected after 9/11, 2 years before the current sample (Dundes and Rajapaksa 2004). The post-9/11 sample had demographic characteristics similar to the current posttsunami sample (see Table 1). A comparison of the samples reveals that the post-9/11 respondents were more anti-American: 73% believed that U.S. involvement in other countries' affairs for its own benefit had justified the 9/11 attack; only 28% thought that the United States selflessly takes risks to help other countries; and 25% supported U.S. involvement in Iraq (as of December 2001–January 2002). Two years later, the current sample largely believed U.S. aid is granted without self-benefit (60%), that U.S. government tsunami aid was generous (75%) while 43% supported U.S. involvement in Iraq. Finally, when compared with post-9/11, Americans were much more apt to be liked after tsunami aid was pledged (28% vs. 50%: p<.001), a sentiment slightly more commonly expressed by males (see Figure 1).

Fig. 1

Attitudes toward Americans post-9/11 versus posttsunami

Fig. 1

Attitudes toward Americans post-9/11 versus posttsunami

When compared with the Pew data from Indonesia, our data prove similar on three variables: first, while 79% believed that the tsunami aid resulted in a more favorable view of the United States, 75% of Sri Lankans called U.S. government aid generous. Second, 59% of Indonesians thought that the United States generally took their interests into account, compared with 60% of Sri Lankans in our sample who believed that the United States gives aid without self-benefit. Likewise, while the Pew study found favorable views of Americans to have declined over time (to 46% with favorable views), this proportion is nevertheless comparable with the 50% we found in our survey.

Limitations

The sample was limited to English-speaking Sri Lankans who represent only 10–20% of the general population. The sample was also generally well educated, and few had suffered the loss of a family member in the tsunami, although data analysis did not reveal significant differences in responses by either educational level or whether respondents had lost friends or family (except in the variable about the extent to which the tsunami affected day-to-day activities). In addition, convenience sampling was used; however, the person responsible for data collection endeavored to collect data outside the capital, Colombo, and to approach a range of persons from different backgrounds. Even though the response rate was an improvement over the post-9/11 dataset (80% vs. 45%), a selection bias is nevertheless present by virtue of less than 100% participation. Although survey participation was solicited by a Sri Lankan insider, participants were aware that the survey was an instrument of both an American and a Sri Lankan (currently working in the United States), perhaps decreasing the likelihood of participation by those with anti-American sentiment (and presumably less favorable views of the United States). These cross-sectional data may also reflect initial euphoria over aid pledged and may fade over time as efforts to rebuild continue.

Comparisons between the current data and the Pew Trusts Indonesian data, as well as the post-9/11 data, must be viewed with caution because of differences in sampling, demographic characteristics, question phrasing, and other methodological disparities. For example, the response rate of the tsunami data sample is twice that of the 9/11 data, suggesting that when a country is a recipient of significant and visible aid, their cooperation in research may improve. While a high response rate is positive, it nevertheless has implications for comparing data with a sample in which a smaller proportion agreed to participate. In addition, to understand the long-term impact of tsunami aid on Sri Lankans more completely, longitudinal data are needed to assess sentiment a year or more after aid was pledged.

The question about whether the tsunami was God communicating disapproval of human behavior may have been limited by Buddhists attributing the tsunami more to bad karma rather than an omnipotent God, although many believe Buddhists recognize the “nature of God” (Drepung Loseling Institute 2005).

Discussion

The substantial resources devoted to humanitarian aid each year not only demonstrate U.S. compassion for human suffering but also carry underlying political implications related to U.S. image and security (Drury, Olsen, and Van Belle 2005). Consequently, it is important to study how citizens of recipient countries respond to their donors. This is particularly critical when the United States not only faces hostility and a terrorist threat from abroad but also condemnation by such nations as Sri Lanka where many (73%) felt that the 9/11 attacks were justified by the United States' self-serving foreign policy (Dundes and Rajapaksa 2004). While the United States has an array of means to protect itself from terrorist threats, these posttsunami data suggest that humanitarian aid has the potential for improving views of a group of recipients who are primarily Buddhists and Catholics (87% of sample). Although only 50% of the respondents claimed to “like” Americans (posttsunami), most of the remainder (43% out of the remaining 50%) claimed indifference to Americans, an improvement over past attitudes. American government aid was perceived as generous (by 75%), as was aid pledged by American citizens (by 84%), even if most respondents (60%) felt that the United States' primary goal in sending them aid was to promote a positive image.

The similarity in Indonesian and Sri Lankan views on certain variables indicates that despite religious differences between the two countries (the former being primarily Muslim, and the latter largely Buddhist), the United States can boost its standing with humanitarian aid. There is still substantial room for improvement of the United States' image, however. Although in Indonesia, American people were viewed less favorably after the tsunami while our data found that Americans were more likeable, the percentage of Indonesians who had positive views of Americans (46%) posttsunami aid was nevertheless comparable among Sri Lankans (50%). These data suggest a limited role of Islamic–U.S. tensions in accounting for why many abroad do not like Americans.

Although fewer than half of our respondents (43%) supported the United States presence in Iraq, the key factor is the change in response from 2 years back (when only 25% indicated their support). While one can only speculate about the reasons for this change, we suggest that the high visibility of the tsunami aid colored recipient views of the United States and Americans that extend to its policies, even policies as controversial as U.S. involvement in Iraq. While Sri Lanka has been a recipient of U.S. foreign aid ranging from loans (secured by the World Bank) to grants and commodities long before the tsunami, the general population is largely unaware of such aid because it has continued for many years in one form or another without any preset conditions or publicity.

Sri Lankan reporting of U.S. nonmonetary involvement during the tsunami crisis was substantial, including television and newspaper coverage of the U.S Marines landing in Galle (a city in the southern coastal areas in Sri Lanka) and their help at the international airport. Within a week of the tsunami, the United States had sent hundreds of Marines and equipment to help with relief and reconstruction efforts. They used their equipment to clear roads, re-open schools, set up refugee camps, and deliver fresh water to those affected. This hands-on work was shown on Sri Lankan television repeatedly, which likely created a positive image of the United States. Such images were further enhanced by U.S. President George W. Bush officially selecting former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush to head the tsunami aid on behalf of the United States where via the media, they jointly asked the American people for contributions to help the long-term recovery in the devastated countries in that region, including Sri Lanka.

There was also publicity surrounding the earlier tour of tsunami-affected areas by then Secretary of State Colin Powell from the current administration and (now former) Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Dundes Wolfowitz, who discussed clean-up and reconstruction efforts with Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga (Rhem 2005). Following their tour, visits by the ranking members of the U.S. Senate, especially Senate majority leader Bill Frist, MD, highlighted public health recovery requirements, such as access to clean water (Frist 2005). Visits from the House of Representatives further underscored the need for U.S involvement through funding and pledges for reconstruction in the areas affected. The in-person visit to the island nation by former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, the highest-ranking foreign dignitaries from the United States to visit Sri Lanka in the first 2 months after the disaster, provided additional proof of U.S. commitment (USAID 2005b). They visited refugee camps, hospitals, and trauma counseling centers, and were briefed on reconstruction projects. Such publicized acts illustrated that Sri Lanka was closely attended to by the world's super power and supported by aid pledged by its people, factors that may have accounted in part for our results.

Another visit by President Clinton as a UN Special envoy for the tsunami relief might have reinforced the impression that Sri Lanka was a priority from the beginning of the crisis even though Indonesia suffered over twice as many casualties as Sri Lanka. In addition, Clinton, considered popular in the developing world (Washington Times 2005), is admired by Sri Lankans largely because of his rise to the highest office in the land from humble beginnings, essentially exemplifying the American dream. Clinton also expressed fondness for the Sri Lankan people, later calling its president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, a “dear friend” (Asian Tribune 2005). Accordingly, Clinton's involvement may have improved the credibility and standing of the current government. Thus, humanitarianism appears to solidify international bonds. The benefits of such allegiance are particularly important in the region of the world where the tsunami struck, given that Sri Lanka and particularly India have a large, English-speaking labor force that is critical in the global economy. In addition, strong relations with Indonesia may strengthen ties with an ally that could help contain Muslim militancy. In summary, the data presented in this paper offer evidence that humanitarian aid may offer a dividend in which unrelated U.S. initiatives are seen in a more favorable light. Responses from Sri Lankans whom we surveyed suggest that giving disaster aid, particularly when it is highly publicized in a laudatory manner, does indeed have the potential to instill goodwill toward Americans, highlighting a means to improve international relations.

Footnotes

1
Many respondents (54%) had no friends who died in the tsunami. Nine percent lost one friend, 10% lost two friends, 22% lost between three and 10 friends, and 6% lost 11 or more friends. Ten percent lost a family member in the tsunami: 3% lost one family member, 3% lost two family members, and the remaining 4% lost three or more family members.

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