Published on Monday, January 17, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
A War to End All Wars
by Dr. César Chelala
Although recent world attention has focused on the war on terror, a more lethal and insidious terror has been taking place in most developing countries: the terror of poverty. Poverty has caused many more deaths than terrorism, and has hindered the proper development of children world wide. What makes this terror particularly devastating is that it can be easily prevented with adequate and timely aid.
Today 842 million people across the world are hungry, 153 million children under five in the developing world are underweight, and 11 million children younger than five die every year, more than half of them from hunger related causes. Many of those deaths can be attributed not to outright starvation, but to diseases that prey on children’s vulnerable bodies. Poverty is one of the most influential factors for ill health.
Damage provoked by malnutrition, illness and inadequate care during childhood hinders children’s future learning and proper development. Poor children become poor adults and initiate a vicious cycle transmitted to future generations. Malnourished girls become malnourished mothers who give birth to underweight children, who have greater mortality risks than normal weight newborns.
According to OXFAM, 45 million children will die needlessly by 2015 because rich countries are failing to provide the resources they promised to overcome the scourge of poverty. In 1970, rich countries agreed to grant 0.7 percent of their national incomes as aid to developing nations. By 2004, none of the G8 members had reached this target, and many have not set a timetable for aid delivery.
The increased gap between rich and poor seen world-wide is manifested not only in terms of income but also of health and social indicators. The World Health Organization estimates that the probability of dying in most developing countries before the age of five is five times higher for lower socio-economic groups than the national average. Regarding educational opportunities, in Nepal for example, enrollment for secondary education among the most privileged groups is 94 percent, compared to eight percent among children from underprivileged families.
Today, it is estimated that between 600 million to 700 hundred million children are struggling to survive on less than $1 a day, representing 40 percent of all children in developing countries. In 2004, several African countries spent more on repaying their debts than on health and education services for their people.
OXFAM states that rich countries today provide half as much foreign aid as they did in the 1960s. In 1960-65 rich countries spent on average 0.48 percent of their combined national incomes on aid. By 2003 the average had dropped to 0.24 percent. The United States, at just 0.14 of its national income, is the smallest contributor on a per capita basis among industrialized countries.
Poverty is the consequence not only of developing countries’ failed policies and corruption. It is also the result of unfair trade conditions imposed by industrialized countries, of these countries’ support of corrupt regimes for political or strategic reasons and of wrong economic policies imposed by international financial institutions. These policies have resulted in huge foreign debts that hinder social progress and contribute to high levels of violence.
Strategic aid is vital to enable poor countries to develop and extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty. To be effective, aid should be dissociated from the obligation to buy goods and services from the donor countries, timely in its deliveries of funds and should have adequate control mechanisms to ensure that it is properly used. Presently, 20 percent of the European Union’s aid reaches its beneficiaries a year late, and 92 percent of Italian foreign aid is contingent upon buying Italian goods and services.
Developing countries’ governments, for their part, should demonstrate their commitment to fight poverty. They should meet the UN recommendation to spend at least 20 percent of public budgets on basic health and social services aimed at the poorest sectors of the population and combat corruption.
Solving the issue of widespread poverty may very well contribute to a more peaceful world. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has stated, “There will be no peace and no security, even for the most privileged amongst us, in a world that remains divided between extremes of wealth and poverty, health and disease, knowledge and ignorance, freedom and oppression.”
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant. He has carried out health related missions in over 45 countries world wide.