After President Bush defended the United States Wednesday against charges that it was stingy with humanitarian aid, a top U.N. official backtracked from his remarks.
"The general comment was on world levels of general assistance, which has had a downwards trend," said U.N. Emergency Relief (search) Coordinator Jan Egeland. "I thought that was very clear to everybody, I spoke of something different in terms of donor response."
Senior U.S. officials interpreted Egeland's comments as a slap in the face and moved swiftly to portray the United States as the superpower of generosity.
"We gave $2.4 billion last year; 40 percent of total contributions by all countries," said U.S. Agency for International Development (search) Administrator Andrew Natsios. "We are by far the largest donor — no one even comes close to us."
In dollar terms, the United States leads the world in foreign aid from government sources. But individual and corporate charity from the United States also exceeds that of any other developed nation, and those donations exceed official government expenditures. Last year, Americans donated billions to international causes.
"Americans give $240 billion overall each year to charity. Only 2 percent of that money is for international causes, so we're talking about $5 billion," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Philanthropy Association (search).
Even if Americans feel a compulsion to give to victims of the tsunami in Asia that has been called one of the world's worst natural disasters, officials urged Americans not to send items. Cash, they said, is king in this effort.
"We do not want people contributing used clothes, pharmaceuticals from their medicine cabinet or cans of food. You can make a contribution in cash to people. That will immediately be sent to the field and will move quickly," Natsios said.
Experts say charities tend to achieve more than government-to-government aid because they involve less bureaucracy, less corruption and closer ties to those in need.
"Private aid tends to be more effective," said Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute (search). "It gets to the people that it's intended for, it's used generally in ways that help people."
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder returned early from vacation to supervise relief efforts. Germany pledged at least $27 million in aid. France has pledged at least $20 million. As a rule, Europeans rely more on government aid and less on private charities.
"A lot of the social and human service programs in Europe take place through the government. People are taxed more so we have a different system here, where there's less taxes and more being done through the nonprofit charitable sector," Borochoff said.
Another measure of U.S. generosity can't be found in the foreign aid budget. That's the cost of transport planes that are used to ferry supplies and navy vessels that purify tens of thousands of gallons of water. Added to that is the work of all the airmen, Marines and sailors who make it all possible.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Major Garrett.