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World Poverty is Indeed An American Problem
Published on Thursday, December 21, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
World Poverty is Indeed An American Problem
When Condoleezza Rice, President-elect Bush's new national security adviser, published an article in Foreign Affairs this fall, she argued for a more hardheaded foreign policy. The United States should focus on its "national interests," she said, and avoid a recent tendency to emphasize instead "humanitarian interests" or the interests of "the international community." Obviously she hadn't been given a preview of a new report from the U.S. intelligence community on the dangers to national security over the next 15 years. It illustrates why global humanitarian interests are American national interests.

The report, Global Trends 2015, says American national security will be affected more and more by such issues as regional insufficiencies of water and food, the spread of disease and "economic stagnation, political instability, and cultural alienation" in areas left behind by globalization. Those influences "will foster political, ethnic, ideological, and religious extremism, along with the violence that often accompanies it," forcing the United States to "remain focused on 'old-world' challenges while concentrating on the implications of 'new-world' technologies at the same time."

President Clinton made the same point in a powerful, if woefully late, speech on global poverty last week at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England: "We have seen how abject poverty accelerates turmoil and conflict, how it creates recruits for terrorists and those who incite ethnic and religious hatred, how it fuels a violent rejection of open economic and social order upon which our future depends. Global poverty is a powder keg, ignitable by our indifference."

The good news is that cracks are beginning to form in that indifference. It would be such a shame for the new administration in Washington to cement them shut again.

Start with the global effort to provide debt relief for heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC). Monday at the World Bank, officials in charge of the bank's part in that program told of substantial progress -- thanks in good measure to the pressure applied by groups like Jubilee 2000 and Oxfam.

The HIPC program, bank officials announced, will have agreements to provide relief to 22 countries by the end of this year, exceeding their aggressive goal of 20. In those 22 nations, HIPC plus other debt relief efforts will mean a savings of $35 billion in actual debt and $20 billion in interest charges, or $55 billion in total savings. For the 22 nations, that means a debt reduction of about two-thirds. It will bring their debt payments to less than 10 percent of their exports -- reversing the recent flow of revenue from the poorest nations to the richest.

These debts, it should be noted, are now being serviced, so the reduction means a real savings to the poor nations. Moreover, the program requires that those savings be invested in poverty reduction programs. In Uganda, the funds have been used to increase financing for a universal education program; in two years, the number of students enrolled in primary schools has doubled. In Mozambique, the funds are being used to underwrite education, health and AIDS-prevention programs. And so it goes.

But as everyone should know, much more than debt relief will be needed to effectively combat world poverty. And no one has been more active in seeking broader solutions than U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Last week Annan unveiled another important, and unorthodox, initiative: He named a panel of experts to examine the best ways to increase investment in the world's poorest nations.

Annan noted that foreign aid has been dropping for a decade. The secretary-general is resigned to a continuation of that trend. What he wants the panel to focus on is actual investment, flowing into the developing nations and generated within those nations themselves.

To lead the panel, Annan named former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, a Ph.D economist; Robert Rubin, former U.S. Treasury secretary; David Bryer, director of Oxfam; and various other global luminaries from labor, economics, banking and finance. It is a sterling group, but it could be improved in late January with the addition of one more name -- the man who gave the impassioned, eloquent speech on world poverty in England last week, who will be, by then, former President Bill Clinton.

Americans certainly have a humanitarian interest in aiding the billions of human beings in this world who live on less than $1 a day, have no clean water, no schools, no health care, no security and no hope. But Americans also have a national interest, for if the powder keg of world poverty explodes, the waters of the oceans will offer very little protection.

© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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