With the international community on the verge of significant victories against global poverty, why are leaders in the developed world poised to sabotage decades of progress? This year nations across Europe are slashing foreign aid budgets even as growing evidence demonstrates the real-world success of overseas assistance programs. According to a new report, aid from rich to poorer countries is a key factor in a historic drop in child mortality—just one of the “transformational changes” foreign aid has produced for the world’s children. The report, “Progress in Child Well-Being: Building on What Works,” published by Save the Children U.K. and Great Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, found that more than four million fewer children are dying each year than in 1990 because of foreign assistance.
According to the report, the number of children enrolled in school increased by 56 million between 1999 and 2009, and 131 countries now have over 90 percent immunization coverage for major preventable childhood diseases, compared with just 63 percent in 1990. Money matters. In sub-Saharan Africa, countries that received the most aid over the past decade made the most progress in reducing child malnutrition and infant mortality.
The fiscal mantra of “austerity” has been repeated across Europe as each government in turn has come to confront national deficits and other fiscal challenges. Now there are similar calls for austerity in the United States despite the clear disruptions such policies are generating in Europe. Economic output is down; unemployment is up; social services are diminished; and the United Kingdom and Spain have again fallen into recession.
European newspapers depict austerity’s toll on families and individuals: the public suicide of a 77-year-old retired pharmacist in Greece shocked the nation. But the damage austerity may inflict is not limited to Europe. Far from the first world and the financial irresponsibility that triggered the global economic crisis, the world’s poor may shoulder a disproportionate measure of European and U.S. austerity. During times of economic crisis, foreign aid budgets make appealing targets.
The Paris-based Organization for Economic Development reported in April that aid to developing countries by major donors fell by nearly 3 percent in 2011, the first drop since 1997. Development experts charge that the cuts far outpace the rate of Europe’s economic contraction. An Oxfam official called the sweeping cuts “inexcusable.”
World donors are far behind schedule to achieve the commitment of 0.7 percent of gross national income (G.N.I.) to mitigate global poverty, which is part of the Millennium Development Goals agreement of 2000. Last year the United States continued to be the world’s largest donor in dollar amounts—offering $30.7 billion in aid. But that figure represents a mere 0.2 percent of the G.N.I. of the United States, far short of its commitment to 0.7 percent.
In “Populorum Progressio” (1967), Pope Paul VI wrote: “The hungry nations of the world cry out to the peoples blessed with abundance. And the Church, cut to the quick by this cry, asks each and every man to hear his brother’s plea and answer it lovingly.” These are lofty words, but the pope also dealt with specifics, encouraging fair, not just free markets and higher taxes in rich nations to finance aid. Above all the pope suggested a higher ambition for foreign assistance: that it be used as a mechanism not just to respond to immediate want, but as an aid to the promotion of “brotherly” affection among the peoples of the world, to solidarity. It is a role that foreign aid can still play today.
Some suggest that foreign aid programs are unaffordable luxuries in the face of the era’s economic challenges. This is plain nonsense. The entire aid budget of the world’s largest economy, the United States, amounts to about 1 percent of the federal government’s total annual budget.
“Progress in Child Well-Being” and other studies demonstrate that aid saves lives. Industrialized nations have freely made commitments to reduce world poverty by half by 2015; military budgets around the world grow larger despite all the bold talk about fiscal reform. O.E.C.D. nations have other options for deficit reduction. The dollar amounts of most national aid budgets are paltry, particularly when compared with the savings that could be achieved through small adjustments to defense budgets or tax policy. Unlike foreign aid reductions, defense spending cuts can have a meaningful impact on fiscal balance while liberating resources to stabilize or even increase foreign aid.
Despite the progress made thus far, the poor of the world still face crushing hardship. Millions of children can be saved or written off by the signing of a budget resolution. The world community has the information, and the need persists. Now it must summon the resolve to finish what it started.