AMERICA, THE INDIFFERENT
It was with great fanfare that the United States and 188 other countries signed the UN Millennium Declaration, a manifesto to eradicate extreme poverty, hunger and disease among the one billion people in the world who subsist on barely anything. The project set a deadline of 2015 to achieve its goals. Chief among them was the goal for developed countries, like America, Britain and France, to work toward giving 0.7 percent of their national incomes for development aid for poor countries.
Almost a third of the way into the program, the latest available figures show that the percentage of U.S. income going to poor countries remains near rock bottom: 0.14 percent. Britain is about halfway to the goal, at 0.34 percent, and France is at 0.41 percent. (Norway and Sweden are already exceeding the goal, at 0.92 percent and 0.79 percent.)
And we learned this week that in the last two months, the Bush administration has reduced its contributions to global food aid programs, and it has told charities like Save the Children and Catholic Relief Services that it won't honor earlier promises. Instead, administration officials said that most of the country's emergency food aid would go to places where there were immediate crises.
Something's not right here. The United States is the world's richest nation. Washington is quick to say that it contributes more money to foreign aid than any other country. But no one is impressed when a billionaire writes a $50 check for a needy family. The test is the percentage of national income we give to the poor, and on that basis the United States is the stingiest in the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
The administration has cited the federal budget deficit as the reason for its cutback in donations to help the hungry feed themselves. In fact, the amount involved is a pittance within the federal budget when compared with our $412 billion deficit, fueled by war and tax cuts. The administration can conjure up $87 billion for the fighting in Iraq, but can it really not find more than $15.6 billion - our overall spending on development assistance in 2002 - to help stop an 8-year-old AIDS orphan in Cameroon from drinking sewer water or to buy a mosquito net for an infant in Sierra Leone?
There is a very real belief abroad that the United States, which gave 2 percent of its national income to rebuild Europe after World War II, now engages with the rest of the world only when it perceives that its own immediate interests are at stake. If that is unfair, it's certainly true that American attention is mainly drawn to international hot spots.
After 9/11, Washington ratcheted up aid to Pakistan to help fight the war on terror. Just last week, it began talks aimed at contributing more aid to the Palestinians to encourage them to stop launching suicide bombers at Israel. Here's a novel idea: how about giving aid before the explosion, not just after?
In 2002, President George W. Bush announced the Millennium Challenge Account, which was supposed to increase U.S. assistance to poor countries that are committed to policies promoting development. Bush said his government would donate $1.7 billion the first year, $3.3 billion the second and $5 billion the third. That $5 billion would have been just 0.04 percent of national income, but the administration still failed to match its promise with action.
Back in Washington and away from the spotlight of the summit meeting, the administration didn't even ask Congress for the full $1.7 billion the first year; it asked for $1.3 billion, which Congress cut to $1 billion. The next year, the administration asked for $2.5 billion and got $1.5 billion.
Worst of all, the account has yet to disperse a single dollar, while every year in Africa, one in 16 pregnant women still die in childbirth, 2.2 million die of AIDS, and 2 million children die from malaria.
Jeffrey Sachs, the economist who directs the Millennium Project, puts the gap between what America is capable of doing and what it actually does into stark relief. The government spends $450 billion annually on the military, and $15 billion on development help for poor countries, a 30-1 ratio that, as Sachs puts it, shows how the nation has become "all war and no peace in our foreign policy."
Next month, he will present his report on how America and the world can actually cut global poverty in half by 2015. He says that if the Millennium Project has any chance of success, America must lead the donors.
Washington has to step up to the plate soon. At the risk of mixing metaphors, it is nowhere even near the table now, and the world knows it.