BRUSSELS -- In the talk in America and Europe about the "war on terrorism," little has been said about tackling root causes. Somewhere along the line, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon stemmed from tensions created by the widening gulf between rich and poor nations. There are today almost 50 countries classified by the United Nations as "least developed" - double the number 30 years ago. As the misery of the Third World has grown, the industrialized nations' generosity has declined. America has cut back the most.
A figure that speaks volumes relates official development aid to a donor country's GNP. The United States comes bottom of the international league, with only 0.1 percent of its economic output going in assistance to poor countries.
Emotions are still raw after the Sept. 11 attacks by murderous fanatics, and it is hard to confront unpalatable facts. Yet it is important to temper the desire for vengeance and some form of justice with clearheaded thinking about how the security of the United States and its Western allies can be improved. Declaring a fresh start in the war against world poverty has to be a first step.
It is not only in America that development aid has been losing public support and has slipped down the political agenda. People in Europe have grown tired of corruption scandals involving misspent aid funds. There has been resentment against pouring taxpayers' money into the "black hole" of development assistance when it seems to yield such meager results.
The difference between Europe and America is that the EU bloc's aid payments for development projects and humanitarian relief continue to rise, whereas those of the United States have been falling fast. In 1995, Congress slashed America's aid budget by 15 percent in one of the most severe cuts ever applied to a federal program. It now stands at $8 billion a year, with a quarter of that going to Israel and Egypt in what is essentially military aid. The cutbacks accelerated a trend that dates back to 1965, when U.S. development aid stood at almost 0.6 percent of GNP. The last 10 years have seen the aid given by individual Americans drop from an average of $42 a head to around $30. Donations from private foundations have increased, but not nearly enough to make up the difference. Andrew Natsios, the new head of USAID, the federal agency which handles international development, is trying to refocus its efforts on "complex emergencies" where deaths from predictable man-made disasters like famine and forced migrations are more preventable. Afghanistan's looming humanitarian tragedy is just such a crisis.
How ready are the United States and its European allies to parallel the war on terrorism with a peace and prosperity strategy capable of defusing the clash of civilizations that we all fear? Not ready at all.
In Washington, Mr. Natsios has been fending off attempts by Senator Jesse Helms and others to disband USAID and perhaps turn it into a semi-private foundation that would work more closely with Christian charities and so-called faith-based organizations. In Brussels, reformists at the head of the European Commission are struggling to cut the red tape that has created an EU surplus to end them all - a money mountain due to top $25 billion in unspent aid commitments.
It is vitally important that the trans-Atlantic solidarity that has followed the Sept. 11 attacks be accompanied by an ambitious and determined drive on poverty and suffering in the Islamic world and elsewhere. At the height of World War II, the allies had already begun to plan the new postwar economic, monetary and security order, and we should think in similar terms today. But the rich countries' record is not encouraging. In real terms, aid spending by OECD countries is 23 percent down on 1991 levels. Meanwhile, the international trade bonanza has passed the Third World by. Tariff barriers on commodities like rice and sugar have helped to limit the least developed countries' share of world trade to 0.4 percent.
For some time, well-intentioned efforts of UN agencies, the World Bank and a plethora of development groups have met with indifference and cynicism. Perhaps the tragedy in America could be thought to have some meaning if it brings about a reappraisal of the North-South relationship.
The writer is director of Forum Europe, secretary-general of Friends of Europe and editor of the quarterly Humanitarian Affairs Review. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
Copyright © 2001 the International Herald Tribune