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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 2005

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Professor Zhu recaps the world's problem of Poverty and hunger, citing facts and figures to Illustrate the “disgraceful situation.” It constitutes a sobering story, one that needs to be repeated often.– Ed.

Combatting Global Poverty

One of the greatest human tragedies of our time is that millions of people die of want in a world of surplus every year. Global poverty is a horrible story not told quite often. One billion people around the world live on less than one dollar a day, and three billion live on less than three dollars a day. More than one billion people lack clean water, and 2.4 billion lack sanitation facilities. Five million children die from hunger and over twelve million people are forced into prostitution yearly. Poverty forces millions more children to drop out of school every year. The average life expectancy of someone born in Africa is thirty-five years less than someone born in the United States.

What can we do to end this disgraceful situation?

1. Make combating global poverty a policy priority.
Topping the list of the UN Millennium Development Goals, adopted in September 2000, is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. It aims to halve the number of people whose income is less than one dollar a day by 2015. According to most estimates, we are falling tragically behind the schedule.

Current global spending and policy priorities are out of sync with the values at the core of our common humanity. Rich countries spend so little on foreign aid compared to everything else. For example, today global military expenditure has surpassed $900 billion annually, with the United States spending about half of it. Global expenses on development assistance are only $50-60 billion.

Immediately after World War II, the United States provided around ninety percent of total world aid. Today U.S. foreign aid accounts for fifteen percent of the world's total. In terms of per capita aid, the United States ranks last among the twenty-two largest economies in the world. U.S. foreign aid is only a tiny portion of its total GNP—0.13%. Hence the charge that the United States is stingy—an accusation the American government vehemently rejects.

In comparison, the Iraq war has cost the United States about $130 billion, according to the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The White House is expected to request as much as another $100 billion this year for war and related costs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some developing countries happen to be some of the world's largest military spenders. If India and Pakistan, for example, decided to cut defense expenditure by fifty percent, their poverty could be eliminated in five years, according to India's Information and Broadcasting Minister Jaipal Reddy.

Poverty is a great security challenge that requires more urgent attention than spreading democracy. When people have to worry about what to eat tomorrow, they will be less interested in democracy. Instead of voting with their hands, they will vote with their feet. Millions of people are trying to flee their homeland everyday to seek better opportunities in wealthier societies. Western Europe and North America are al-ready feeling the heat and the security challenges it poses.

2. Raise the awareness of the global poverty issue.
Paying appallingly scant attention to the plight of the world's poor, today's international news media are doing a terrible job in publicizing the global poverty issue. Entertainment magazines flood the newsstands with stories about movie and sports stars' marriages, divorces, flirtations, and other personal affairs. It's deplorable that the media are so interested in things like how much money a Hollywood couple would spend on their yet another lavish wedding but turns a blind eye to the tragedy in developing countries. The world's richest residents, especially those with an income that grossly over-rates their abilities—many movie and sports stars included— should be reminded that if they can be just a little frugal, millions of lives can be saved.

Two decades after the original Live Aid, when rock stars raised money for Ethiopian famine relief, singers and activists launched Live 8, a series of concerts on July 2, 2005, in Philadelphia, London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo and Berlin. Live 8's goal was to raise awareness of Make Poverty History, a campaign to get the richest nations to cancel debt and increase aid to developing countries, and to promote fair trade. More such efforts should be made and more people are encouraged to participate.

As world leaders gathered in New York in September 2005 to hold the 2005 UN development summit, they realized, one hopes, that poverty in the developing world can no longer be ignored. To meet the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015, we must make the next decade the development decade.

3. Go multilateral and global.
The United States, the richest nation on earth, has traditionally preferred to go it alone and give aid to selective countries directly. The Marshall Plan and American aid to Asian allies after World War II were all conducted through bilateral channels. These aids were largely politically motivated and have served America's security interests. However, it is miserably insufficient to fight global poverty today based on such a policy.

A multi-level and multidimensional contribution system needs to be established that involves national and local governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international governmental organizations (IGOs), businesses, communities, and individuals. Global agencies like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Development Program—all have established monitoring systems and have country coordinators for their aid program.

World leaders and international organizations have a special role to play. G8 finance ministers' agreement on June 11, 2005 to cancel debt for poor countries is the right thing to do. The international community is anxiously watching to see whether world leaders reached more agreements and mapped out concrete plans to eradicate global poverty at the UN summit in September 2005.

It is also encouraging that Paul Wolfowitz, the new head of the World Bank Group, has listed poverty reduction and development promotion as his two priority objectives during his presidency. One of his first international travels has taken him to four African countries recently to learn about poverty situations there.

4. Encourage individual and other non-governmental participations.
Government budgets on global poverty are woefully inadequate, but governments and international organizations are not the only donors for developing countries. Individuals can make a huge difference. For example, private U.S. aid overseas was estimated at $33.6 billion in 2003—twice the official U.S. aid budget. The outpouring of financial support from individuals around the world in the aftermath of the Decem-ber 2004 Tsunami in South Asia and the August 2005 Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of the United States—much donated online—demonstrates that individuals are willing to help fellow citizens in need.

Individuals can also participate in non-governmental organizations and civic groups to help reduce poverty. Hundreds of groups worldwide have joined hands and formed the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP). The GCAP is a world wide alliance committed to making world leaders live up to their promises, and to making a breakthrough on poverty in 2005. What more humanitarian and nobler causes are there than helping fellow human beings? It is our collective responsibility to make sure that all humans live in dignity.

5. Treat it as a long-term project.
Fighting global poverty is a comprehensive and long-term project that needs cooperation by all players. Simply providing financial support is not enough. Poverty reduction must be development-based. The international community can help poor countries to help themselves by stimulating economic growth, promoting good governance, facilitating with basic education and health, and improving political status of women and children. Good governance, not necessarily democracy, and civil society must be introduced and consolidated in poor countries. Developed countries can also lower tariffs on goods from poor countries to help improve economic prospects of those countries.

On January 23, 2004, President George W. Bush signed the law creating the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which administers MCA funds. MCA is an innovative new aid program to countries with a proven record to reasonably good governance, investments in health and education, and sound economic policies. The MCA received $1 billion for fiscal year 2004. The President has promised to increase the budget for MCA to $5 billion by 2006.

China is an example of how the government and the society can jointly promote sustainable development. The Chinese government established several program to alleviate poverty in remote regions with the help of international organizations such as the World Bank. The Western Development Strategy, launched in 1998, has helped stimulate growth and poverty reduction in the Chinese West. Science and Technology training centers have been set up in poor regions to help farmers to learn skills for growing rice and crops. Non-governmental programs include Project Hope, which helps poor children in the countryside to complete primary school education, and Project Spring Bud, which helps girls who have dropped out of school in rural China to continue their education.

President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address on January 20, 1961, remarked, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." When about 3 billion human beings live in extreme poverty, we can never sleep carefree. "While poverty exists, there is no true freedom," declares Nelson Mandela. Development, democracy and security are inextricably linked. We must take actions now to help the world's poor and powerless so that we can all share a better future. It's such a great cause that requires so little from the so rich. Governments, groups, and individuals around the globe can definitely do more to make this world a better place to live for everyone.


Zhiqun Zhu is assistant professor of international political economy and diplomacy at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He received a Ph.D. in political science at the University of South Carolina. In the early 1990s, he worked in the information section of the American consulate general in Shanghai. Dr. Zhu has published widely on U.S.-Chinese relations.

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