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The EditorsMay 21, 2012

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.

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Mike Evans
11 years 6 months ago

The basic answer is simple: selfishness. Both the middle and upper classes are rersponsible for allowing so many people to suffer needlessly due to constrictions of the public purse. Our own House of (GOP) Representatives just now has reinforced this attitude, voting to fund destruction rather than assistance to the most vulnerable. Our bishops sometimes speak but do not strongly act as a body under their own leadership or with the Vatican to oppose the austerity approach to social progress. If we withdrew our forces around the world and instead shared technology, education and basic goods the rewards would be enormous. The only ones to suffer would be those who are arms merchants or who profit from commodity scarcities. In Africa, a monumental problem is undrinkable, unsafe and scarce water supplies. Most of this could be resolved by existing well and pipeline technology. We are afraid of any bold or concerted moves and instead seem to support one shameful despot after another. And no one is able to write the equation of guns vs butter so it takes root in people's hearts.

Tim O'Leary
11 years 6 months ago

I fully agree with the desire and obligation of caring for those in need around the world, but I think the tax system is a very inefficient way to get help to those in need. I would rather send money to CRS than have it diluted through the bureaucratic government systems. I also think that raising taxes on employers right now will reduce the number of new jobs and paradoxically reduce the tax revenue (through slower economic growth).

Americans gave $290 Billion to charity and all types of philanthropy in 2010, up from $280B in 2009, despite the economic downturn (see givingusareports.org), plus another $30 Billion through the tax system (figures above). All other countries pale in comparison in giving voluntarily.

In any case, how about a 2x tax break for any donations that go to the corporal works of mercy and 1x for all other causes (Mortgage, Church needs at home, Arts, Education, etc.). I think that would have a much better effect than borrowing more money from China and acting as a middleman to send it out to Africa and back to Asia.

Patrick Veale
11 years 6 months ago
This is a really important issue.  I have worked a lifetime in the shantytowns of the so-called third world.  While it is true that many of these coutries have seen the rise of massive new middle and lower middle classes, there is still much to be done.  Brazil has soome 30% in poverty and President Dilma is going to increase the aid to these families so they can educate and give health care to the children.  But her's is today, an unusual government.  When you speak of foreign aid, it would be important to recognize that in the first world there is a drive to dismantle all the programs that benefited the majority of people, not to speak of the poor.  It is this common policy being implemented everywhere that has to be analysed if we are to understand the need to bring down foreign aid (a policy I believe is part of the justification for austerity programs at home).  Why would countries where wealth is in the hands of 1% want to undermine their own socieities health and basic ability to consusme?  I think it is because the half of the American population living below or near the poverty line can never be expected to buy the kind of goods that large capital investments need to produce if they are to be profitable, i.e. goods that call for high tech functionaries in a digitized system of production.  While these people were important consumers just a few years ago in the Clinton era, they are now viewed as obsolete, and a burden on "progress". 
C Walter Mattingly
11 years 6 months ago
We shouldn't drop the ball on Africa. The Bush administration accomplished what Bill Clinton characterized as the greatest charitable action in modern African history with his Aids help there, saving an estimated 1.25 million lives. The Gates Foundation is making a great effort in improving water supplies and fighting infectious diseases there. The past administration and current Gates-led effort have established a tremendous momentum for those suffering in Africa where the poor not only don't have cell phones and color TV's, but don't have potable water. We shouldn't drop the ball now.
11 years 6 months ago
Tim O'Leary's suggestionof a 2x or doubled tax deduction for charitable donations going to corporal works of mercy intrigues me.  Not all charities have equal value, let alone all tax deductions.  

Thank you Tim for a fresh, interesting idea! 
Vincent Gaitley
11 years 6 months ago
Here's a new idea:  Leave Africa alone, neither help nor hinder the folks there.  What we call charity, many call oppression.  Trillions spent for a generation have left the people waiting at the piers for the next boatload.  The governments there are corrupt, the people pained.  But let them be, let them find their own way even though it will be hard, perhaps harder still to stand by and watch.  Let them develop without us, except as trading partners.  Let them fail, fall, find their feet, and then flourish.  Nothing has worked and all our charitable efforts look, well, self serving.  Look about and admit the truth, the continent is a political and economic failure.  I hope every African rises up and destroys the statist governments and creepy charities that infect the place.  Our good intentions, missions, and medicine have left the legacy of poor development, a preference for the powerful, disease, and no infrastructure self determination.  A round of applause please because no war could have been as destructive for so long among so many.  Well done. 

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