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What If We Really Helped the Poor?

15 March 2002

Eighteen months ago, the United Nations General Assembly set three simple but ambitious targets for helping the world's poor: Cut extreme poverty in half, cut the deaths of children by two-thirds and provide universal primary education, all by 2015.

Next week, in Monterrey, Mexico, heads of state and ministers from scores of countries will meet to start figuring out how to get there.

One estimate of the cost that is easy to grasp comes from Oxfam International: $100-billion (U.S.), an amount the aid agency says is achievable if aid-giving countries were to spend 0.7 per cent of their economic output on foreign aid. That's a promise most have made repeatedly, but few have kept.

Now, $100-billion sounds like a lot. It's about one-fifth of Canada's annual economic output. It's certainly more money than I ever expect to see in one place.

But you know what? In the grand global scheme of things, it's really not that much.

As U.S. officials are busy in Monterrey lecturing the world on how to fix foreign aid, bickering will continue in Washington over their government's 2003 budget.

The Bush administration wants a $48-billion increase in military spending, which would push the Pentagon's annual budget to $379-billion a year. It also wants a $38-billion increase in domestic security spending. Think of them as two beefy hunks surfing the post-Sept. 11 rollers.

Congress is arguing about who should control part of the money, but most of it is likely to be approved. Who, in the current climate, will stand up and oppose anything called counterterrorism?

There's no evidence that spending $86-billion more on defence and security will, of itself, make America safer from attack. The United States is already the biggest kid on the block by far. In fact, the sheer size of its security and intelligence establishment seems to be responsible for some of its vulnerability.

Agencies that had trouble talking to one another in August lost track of some of September's murderers. Immigration authorities are still trying to give visas to others. All those Pentagon billions couldn't protect the USS Cole, moored in Aden harbour, from some guys in a dinghy.

The Pentagon is the entity that gave the world the $640 toilet seat and the $76 screw. Yet U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill presumes to lecture about the inefficiency of foreign aid. When the World Bank said timidly last week that 50 years of aid have actually produced some positive results, Mr. O'Neill reacted by saying half a loaf was no better than none.

Millions are still living on less than $1 a day, he said, and that "doesn't sound to me like 50 years of success." In Monterrey, U.S. negotiators will argue against pledging money and in favour of tying aid to restrictive development targets.

We all know aid could be better spent. We know, too, that its beneficial effects are more than offset by selfish protectionism in the developed world. We know helping the poor will defuse some of the hopelessness and bitterness that sometimes gives rise to terrorism.

But we shouldn't have to put the argument that way. Generosity has been stagnant for too long, and there are now many parts of the world - especially in sub-Saharan Africa - where the only hope for getting desperately poor people on track to a better future is an infusion of resources.

Schools built, teachers trained, vaccines delivered, AIDS prevention programs funded, the malnourished children fed. Just think what you could get for $48-billion.

Or half of it. Or one-quarter, or one-eighth.

Paul Knox
Published in the Toronto Globe & Mail © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc

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