However generous individual Americans may be toward those in need, as a nation we do not rank high when it comes to providing development assistance to poor and hungry people in other lands. This is one of the observations made by the Washington, D.C.-based Bread for the World Institute in its annual report released in March. Entitled Foreign Aid to End Hunger, the report states bluntly that "the United States has a stingy mixed record on poverty-focused foreign aid." Richest of countries, we nevertheless rank close to the bottom among country-to-country foreign aid donors. Canada, Japan and the European Union all allocate more for programs aimed at reducing poverty and its deadly concomitant, hunger.
The total foreign aid budget is approximately $15 billion a year, but of this amount only a third goes for poverty-related help. The rest is doled out according to primarily political considerations; these often take the form of military programs, international narcotics control and trade promotion. Especially during the cold war, our efforts to win potential allies away from Soviet influence led to the giving of financial aid even to countries with deplorable human rights records. During the 1980’s, for example, the four largest recipients of aid in Africa were Liberia, Somalia, Sudan and Zaire. Not surprisingly, the report notes, attention to U.S. strategic interests has overshadowed humanitarian concerns. Even now, with the perceived Communist threat gone, there has been no return to earlier levels of aid for poverty reduction, nor are the poorest countries the major beneficiaries of what we do give. In the late 1990’s, Israel—the recipient nation with the highest income—and the middle-income Egypt received the most: almost $5 billion, or about a third of all foreign aid given by the United States.
But the goal of ending hunger is a realizable goal. Indeed, the report emphasizes that were the United States to lead an international effort, hunger could be cut in half by 2015. This, in fact, was the goal set in 1996 by the World Food Summit, at which 186 countries pledged to work toward achieving this objective. Foreign Aid to End Hunger contends that a yearly U.S. contribution of $1 billion could—if matched with $3 billion from other nations—all but assure attainment of this goal. An annual contribution of $1 billion is not a lot when it is remembered that Americans spend $7 billion yearly on video rentals. What then is the barrier to pledging this relatively small amount to a cause most Americans favor? David Beckmann, president of the Bread for the World Institute, told America that the United States wants other things more—e.g., the $1.3 trillion tax cut that has now been approved.
Africa is the report’s primary point of focus, because that is the continent afflicted with the harshest manifestations of hunger. Almost a quarter of the world’s hungry inhabitants live in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in three persons is chronically undernourished. The triple scourges of civil war, external debt—which robs poor countries of funds for health and education—and the devastation of AIDS have contributed to increased hunger there over the past decade.
The Bread for the World Institute makes a series of recommendations for putting U.S. aid to use in helping African nations that struggle with hunger. They include investing in agriculture to assist farmers improve crop yields by new farming methods, along the lines of the Green Revolution in Asia, and constructing new roads that would make it easier for farmers to deliver their crops to market and thereby to hungry people. In addition, other important strategies could make it possible for more children to attend school—especially girls, who tend to be relegated to second place after male children when it comes to education. The empowerment of women is a related factor, especially when one recalls that women produce 85 percent of the food in sub-Saharan Africa. Another recommendation calls for promoting small, home-based businesses, which can lift household income and teach people new skills. Additionally, funds to strengthen primary health care could help in the fight against H.I.V.-AIDS and other diseases. Finally, promoting ongoing debt relief would free resources needed for development within the poorest countries.
As follow-up to the report, Bread for the World (www.bread.org) is campaigning to increase poverty-focused aid to Africa. Its grass-roots members are urging their Congressional representatives to cosponsor the bipartisan Hunger to Harvest resolution (H.Con.Res. 102, S.Con.Res. 53). The Senate recently passed the resolution, thus urging President Bush to propose a plan to reduce hunger in Africa and offering Congressional support for the necessary funding. We should join this effort. It is unconscionable that the United States should remain the least generous of nations when it comes to foreign aid to those who are poorest.