What would you do if the little girl next door wasn't getting enough to eat? Perhaps you'd slip her a sandwich, or organize a casserole brigade, or call the cops. But certainly you'd do something. Looking out for other people's kids, you understand, isn't really a choice. It's a reflex. That's why the United States, the richest country on Earth, puts money into foreign aid.
And just how much of its yearly budget does this country spend on foreign aid? Maybe 15 percent? That's what most Americans think. They also believe, several polls show, that the United States is the biggest foreign-aid giver in the world.
They're wrong. The United States devotes less than half a percent of its budget to foreign assistance. And it ranks dead last among donor countries when aid is calculated as a fraction of national wealth. It gives just one-tenth of 1 percent of its gross domestic product. Just a sliver of that tiny bit goes to the world's poorest nations.
These numbers matter immensely to a little girl you've never met. She lives in sub-Saharan Africa, home to most of the world's poorest countries, and she's not doing terribly well. She's hungry. She drinks dirty water, is often ill and doesn't go to school. She could be among the millions of Africans now ducking bullets. She might be one of the 12 million sub-Saharan kids already orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. And she herself may very well die quite young -- most likely of AIDS.
Our little girl's sad story is in its early chapters, and we could change its plot if we tried. But we're not trying. Since the Cold War ended and Africa lost its place as a political pawn, international aid to the sub-Saharan region has dwindled to a 50-year low. The United States has been the chief forsaker -- cutting its aid nearly in half over a decade. This year, it's spending $737 million on the region -- more than last year, but a pittance compared to the $3 billion slathered annually on Israel and Egypt.
Think of it. Nearly half of Africans live on a dollar a day -- barely able to gather their daily bread. Yet each American gives less than $3 a year -- pennies a week -- to help them. That's less than Americans spend on golf balls. It's invisible alongside the $300 billion U.S. military budget.
Americans have been stingy not only with aid, but also with trade. Sub-Saharan Africa last year accounted for barely 1 percent of total U.S. exports, imports and foreign direct investment. Western trade barriers cost sub-Saharan countries $20 billion a year in lost exports. Over 30 years, the region's share of global exports has dropped by half -- to just 1.4 percent of the pie.
The upshot is deepening poverty, from which the debt-ridden region cannot possibly escape on its own. This parsimony would be shameful in any case, but the AIDS scourge makes it an outrage. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24.5 million HIV-infected people -- more than 70 percent of the global caseload. The epidemic is savaging a generation and terrorizing a continent. Soon its gloom will be felt round the globe. It already counts as history's bitterest tragedy; it's hard to fathom what it will yet become.
Africa's tyrants plainly deserve blame for this horror. But so do the many nations who have plundered Africa's riches, played it as a chess piece, propped up its dictators and then left it in the lurch. After all that, it takes great nerve to claim Africa should be left alone to stew in its juices.
Yet some of Africa's detractors are saying just that. Foreign aid never did Africa much good before, they say, and probably never will. And at this point, they argue, Africa's calamity is so advanced that intervention is futile.
But that's no way to think about a little girl -- or about anyone. Giving up is not an option. Hungry babies need feeding. Curious 6-year-olds need teaching. Sick mothers need tending. Declining to help such people because their needs are great will only seal their sorry fate. So will refusing to respond simply to spite a handful of warmongers and thieves.
There's no denying that helping Africa save itself will be daunting and delicate. It will mean scrapping old notions about dispensing charity to supplicants in favor of new ideas about sharing resources with neighbors. It will require sensitivity, imagination and a boatload of money -- far more than any politician ever dreamed of spending on foreign aid.
For starters, mounting an effective HIV-prevention program in Africa will cost a solid $3 billion annually -- considerably more than the White House and the World Bank have so far pledged. Guaranteeing education for Africa's children will cost billions more, as will digging wells and vaccinating babies and nudging nations toward wise growth and governance.
But the world's comfortable have this kind of money -- and should want to spend it. They should take Archbishop Desmond Tutu's advice and pour it into a "Marshall Plan" for Africa -- an intensive, multiyear effort to coax the continent from impoverished isolation toward prosperity and world engagement.
Such a plan will only work if it is generous, thoughtfully targeted and tailored to the needs of nations. And as African thinkers have argued for years and the World Bank acknowledged last month, it can only succeed if it moves beyond traditional economic help to emphasize democracy-building and abiding links among nations. Indeed, it's the only hope for quenching the continent's menacing plagues: poverty, sickness and powerlessness.
Americans needn't bear the entire burden of such ventures, but they should take the lion's share. Their government's extravagance of riches proves that they can. The humanity of Americans -- who've always favored spending much more on foreign aid -- suggests that they will.
A little girl in Africa is the reason they must.
© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune