The Right Time to Act on Global Poverty

June 29, 2005

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Next week the leaders of the world's eight largest industrial nations, known as the Group of Eight, come together in Scotland to chart a course for the global economy in the coming year.

Amidst the speeches, photo ops, and diplomatic functions, our leaders have an historic opportunity to end extreme poverty in the world. They must seize this moment.

"Ending global poverty" - it sounds hopelessly idealistic to many people. Like transplanting a human heart, landing on the moon, or eradicating polio. Just like these other triumphs of human creativity and dedication, we can indeed succeed in ending extreme poverty within our lifetimes.

As CEO of Mercy Corps, the Portland-based international humanitarian agency, I have seen firsthand the ravaging effects of chronic poverty. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Mercy Corps works with the poor and oppressed to build lives that are more prosperous, more secure, and more just.

In 25 years on the ground in the developing world, we have learned that it is the poor themselves who work hardest to overcome poverty. But the pride and promise we see in these people cannot be fully realized without significant leadership and investments from the wealthy nations of the G8.

The international community made a major advance towards this goal back in 2000, when all 191 members of the United Nations pledged to meet the Millennium Development Goals, a series of targets that would halve extreme poverty by 2015.

To his credit, President Bush has shown some leadership on these issues. His new Millennium Challenge Account has the potential to greatly assist poor countries that have demonstrated good governance, and he has substantially increased the U.S. contribution to the global fight against HIV/AIDS. But as he prepares for the G8, the president needs to go further. Our government should affirm to the world its leadership on fighting poverty and make three bold commitments:

  • Devote an additional one percent of the federal budget - about $25 billion - to foreign assistance;
  • Cancel the debts the most impoverished nations owe multilateral institutions like the International Monetary Fund;
  • Start eliminating the subsidies to U.S. agribusinesses that distort free trade and prevent many poor countries from trading their way out of poverty.

President Bush's announcement earlier this month that he would increase aid to Africa by $674 million was deeply disappointing. That money is targeted more to emergency needs than long term development and it is grossly inadequate for the task we share.

Americans are among the most generous people in the world, yet right now, as a percentage of our national wealth, we give far less aid than our industrialized allies. It's time we aligned our policy with our principles by committing to double our aid budget over time, as the British and our other friends have. We should aim to spend an additional one percent of the federal budget - approximately $25 billion - on helping poor nations help themselves.

On debt cancellation, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced an agreement earlier this month to cancel 100 percent of the debt owed by 18 highly indebted poor countries to multilateral lenders like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. That bold step will improve millions of lives, as debt payments are preventing many impoverished nations from making productive investments in transportation systems and education, which would ultimately lift them out of extreme poverty. Building on this momentum, President Bush should use the G8 to urge his counterparts to extend that debt cancellation deal to a wider group of poor countries in the coming years.

This global investment in ending poverty is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

It's the right thing to do because it reflects our values as Americans: we have a strong legacy of reaching out to those in need, driven by a common moral imperative to help those Pope John Paul II called "the least among us."

It's the smart thing to do because giving poor countries a hand up creates trading partners, strategic allies, and a better, safer world. In his 2002 National Security Strategy, President Bush put development on the same level as defense and diplomacy as a means to keeping America and the world safe and stable.

Aid works when done right. The Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe. Heavy U.S. investment in Taiwan and South Korea after the Korean War created two of the world's most vibrant economies from a starting point comparable to Africa at the time. American development assistance has played a critical role in improving living standards and advancing participatory government in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Now is the time for action. The political will is there, bridging the usual divisions between liberal and conservative, religious and secular, business executives and social activists. Through the ONE Campaign, a powerful and diverse coalition of international humanitarian agencies like Mercy Corps, business groups, students, faith leaders, Hollywood stars, and others have mobilized to ensure that the U.S. government contributes its fair share in this historic effort. In a series of rallies and concerts this week, millions of people - from Madonna to Pat Robertson - will echo the call I make here.

The president has promised to promote a "compassion agenda" at the G-8. For the sake of the 300 million Africans living in extreme poverty, let's hope he does the right thing and the smart thing by joining with other wealthy nations to invest in this noble initiative.