June 20, 2008


Keeping our promises

Americans do not seem to like foreign aid. In this election year, you don’t see the candidates campaigning for an increase in foreign aid.

If you ask the average citizen, he or she will say that we are already giving too much money to other countries, especially when our own citizens are experiencing horrendous gas prices and rising food costs.

Nevertheless, as the richest country on Earth, we have a moral obligation to help those less fortunate. Besides, we’re not giving nearly the amount of foreign aid that most people think we are. A 2001 survey reported that Americans, on average, believed that foreign aid accounts for 20 percent of the federal budget, 24 times the actual figure. It’s actually about 0.8 percent.

One of the most serious global problems at the moment is the food crisis that threatens nearly a billion people with hunger. Commodities such as rice and wheat have doubled in price in the past three years.

Pope Benedict XVI, in a message to the World Food Security Summit in Rome on June 2, said, “Hunger and malnutrition are unacceptable in a world that, in reality, has sufficient levels of production, resources and know-how available to put an end” to the problem. Hunger is caused by individuals refusing to recognize their obligations toward others, he said.

But it’s not just food. Earlier this year, the U.N. General Assembly discussed the progress—or lack of progress—on the eight Millennium Development Goals that 189 countries, including the United States, agreed to in 2000 to try to achieve by 2015. As part of those goals, developed countries agreed to commit 0.7 percent of their gross national product to official development assistance. That has declined to about 0.2 percent.

The eight goals, as enumerated in an editorial in America magazine, are: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal free primary education; promoting gender equality and empowerment of women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and developing a global partnership for development.

The Vatican is a strong supporter of the development goals. Its permanent observer to the U.N., Archbishop Celestino Migliore, was among those who spoke at the meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, the former Harvard economist who now directs the Earth Institute at Columbia University, heads the U.N. Millennium Project. He gained renown first by helping Bolivia conquer its hyperinflation and then Poland after it broke away from communism. He soon became adviser to other countries in Asia and Africa before becoming special adviser to the U.N.

His book, The End of Poverty, published in 2005, told specifically how extreme poverty can be eliminated if we only have the political will to do it. His prescriptions lean heavily on helping countries become capitalistic. (He quotes Adam Smith 12 times in that book.) With facts and figures, he demonstrates that countries can start up the ladder to prosperity through free trade, but they first need help getting a foot on that ladder.

That, by the way, is the philosophy of Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ overseas aid organization. Its emphasis is always on helping the people in developing countries to help themselves.

In an interview on May 1, Sachs noted that the U.S. military spends $1.9 billion every day. Over five years, $1.5 billion could provide mosquito net coverage to prevent malaria in all of Africa. Since malaria and HIV/AIDS are Africa’s worst health problems, surely we could afford to do that.

It’s not that President Bush has been silent about the United States doing what it promised. He has frequently called for an increase in foreign aid as an important part of our foreign policy. But it is not happening.

Certainly, there are parts of the world where we cannot help because of the governments there: Myanmar, for example, where the government refused to allow aid workers to enter the country after a recent devastating cyclone, or Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has ruined what once was a prosperous country. But we could be doing much more than we are.

We hope that our next president will mention the Millennium Development Goals in his inaugural address, even if he won’t during the presidential campaign.

—John F. Fink

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