The death toll in Burma could now reach as high as 250, 000 people. The country lies in ruins. The people are starving. Rotting bodies pile up in heaps.

So how much aid does the USA, the world’s richest country, offer? That would be $250 000 — the same amount received by the winner of the American version of The Biggest Loser.

President Bush has now increased the total to three million but, given that Americans spend $40 billion each year on their pets, it’s hard not to agree with Tim Costello that the amount is “ridiculously low“.

Other countries have been equally stingy. Britain has pledged five million pounds, France 200 000 Euros and Australia some three million dollars: chump change, in other words.

The supposed justification for this parsimony centres on the Burmese regime’s refusal of assistance. Which is funny, since Rangoon has, in fact, explicitly called for international aid.

True, the junta has declined a US offer to deploy three naval ships and two planes in the region. That refusal doesn’t, however, seem quite as unhinged as it’s been made out — one recalls the Bush administrations’ reaction to the offer of Venezuelan oil during Hurricane Katrina.

In any case, it’s hard to see how the nature of the regime makes foreign aid any less necessary. One would think the argument works the other way: if the generals are unwilling or incapable of responding, foreign humanitarianism becomes more important rather than less.

According to The Age, Austcare, Caritas, Australian Red Cross, Save the Children, TEAR Australia and World Vision are all appealing for funds. One assumes their international equivalents are doing the same. So, even if Rangoon spurned every offer, there’s no shortage of relief organisations that governments could fund.

Nor does the slowness with which visas have been granted get the international community off the hook. The delay means, in fact, that, when the NGOs eventually arrive in the affected areas, they’ll have a bigger job to do — and will need more resources to do it.

The Age reports:

Any government would struggle to cope with a disaster on this scale. But thanks in large part to the generals, Burma is exceptionally ill equipped. The country still relies on infrastructure built about 100 years ago. There has been little investment in modern roads and railways. Internal transportation of relief supplies will be a headache.

In such conditions, the paltry sums so far offered won’t cut it.

But we’ve been through this movie before. There’s no strategic value in helping the homeless and the hungry, and so governments won’t do it unless they’re pressured by their populations — which is pretty much what happened after the Asian tsunami.

When, on the other hand, humanitarianism provides a figleaf for some geostrategic imperative, everything miraculously changes. You’ll recall how, just prior to the invasion, the Pentagon and its useful idiots in the media discovered the suffering masses of Iraq — and suddenly there was no price on human rights.

But Rangoon’s scarcely Baghdad, is it! That’s why, in the funding bill going before Washington later this week, the Iraq war will receive an extra 195 billion dollars – while the people of Burma get a lousy three million.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland.