This Independence Day, a Chance For Global Freedom From Poverty

By Ruth Messinger and John Mccullough

Published July 01, 2005, issue of July 01, 2005.
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One billion people in the developing world live on $1 or less a day, lacking clean water, electricity, food, education and medical care. This July 4, as we Americans proudly celebrate our independence, it is our hope that President Bush fully contemplates the opportunity he has to help free many of them from the chains of poverty.

Next week, the president will join the leaders of seven other wealthy nations at the G-8 summit in Scotland to discuss, among other global issues, the implementation of the Millennium Goals. The goals, agreed to by all 189 member states of the United Nations in 2000, aim to reduce global poverty by the year 2015. To that end, they call for cutting in half the number of people living in extreme poverty, providing primary education for all children and secondary education for girls, reducing child mortality rates by two-thirds and preventing the spread of malaria and AIDS, among others aims.

Achieving the Millennium Goals is not an impossible dream. What are required are three main components to actualize the vision into reality: relief of international debt for the poorest countries, an increase in developmental aid from the wealthiest countries, and fair trade agreements that do not threaten the medical needs and livelihoods of the poorest of the poor.

Take the example of a health clinic that opened 10 months ago in Kigali, Rwanda. It was the first effort to provide AIDS treatment to women who were raped and contracted HIV during the violence and genocide that took place there 11 years ago. It provides lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs to every single woman who needs them. Now, instead of growing sick and dying before their children’s eyes, these women continue to work and raise their children, bringing hope to a new generation.

This success story can and should be replicated in villages and cities across Africa and the developing world, but it cannot be done by nonprofit humanitarian organizations alone. Unfortunately, too many communities do not yet have the resources to lift themselves from poverty to provide such essential services — in large part because their governments are forced to spend millions of dollars to pay interest on decades-old debts.

Last year, the world’s poorest nations paid more than $2 billion in debt service to international creditors. Even as they struggle to combat the AIDS pandemic and provide education for every child, many countries are forced to spend considerably more on debt service as they do on health care and education combined.

Now there is new hope that the global community will comprehensively address the debt crisis plaguing more than 50 nations, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. On June 10, the United States and Great Britain announced an agreement to cancel 100% of the debts that 18 countries are paying to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and African Development Bank. But even as we celebrate with Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair for reaching this potentially lifesaving agreement prior to their meeting in Scotland, we recognize that too many countries in desperate need of debt cancellation are left out.

More than a dozen countries that qualify for debt relief were denied because they refuse to implement the harmful economic policies that creditors currently require. These policies, such as requiring user fees for health care or education, deepen poverty and are antithetical to our vision of a just world. Other nations in need of debt cancellation fall outside the framework to which Bush and Blair agreed.

Sri Lanka, which was devastated by the tsunami earlier this year, continues to pay hundreds of millions in debt service. And perhaps most shockingly, South Africa — the country with the largest HIV-positive population in the world — continues to pay back billions in apartheid-era debts that were incurred by the white minority government and were used to oppress the black majority population. For the sake of justice, we cannot forget these countries, or their crushing debts.

Debt-relief initiatives have proven successful and are an effective way to provide poor countries with a practical solution to meet the health and education needs of their people. A limited debt-relief program in the mid-1990s allowed 4 million more children to go to primary school in Uganda. Because of debt relief, Mali, Mozambique and Senegal have dramatically increased their AIDS prevention, care and treatment.

In achieving these successes, countries have also avoided the traps predicted by naysayers. Because the governments receiving relief are held accountable, the money saved has been invested in social services — not personal offshore accounts or increased military spending. Furthermore, because the sums of money involved are enormous to poor countries, but imperceptibly small to rich countries like the United States, canceling the debt will not hurt lending nations or impact the ability of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund to finance development programs.

In addition to international debt relief, the wealthy nations of the world must increase their commitment to humanitarian aid for the poorest countries. Many people are surprised to learn that the United States ranks 21st out of 22 of the wealthiest nations in the distribution of non-military humanitarian aid. Only 0.16% — or less than one-quarter of 1% — of our gross national product is disbursed in aid to poor countries.

The goal set by the world community as many as 35 years ago, and reaffirmed by the United States in 2002, is that that this aid should be raised to 0.7%. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have found that poor countries are capable of absorbing double the amount of aid now being given to them, and when accountability measures are clearly defined and monitored, results are achieved. Sadly, at the same meeting with Blair, Bush proclaimed that this is not a priority or budgetary consideration.

Finally, when we negotiate trade deals with poor countries, we cannot compromise the impact they would have on the most vulnerable people of the world. There is much debate about the pros and cons of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, or Cafta. But to us who work everyday helping to liberate poor communities from the bondage of poverty, the harmful consequences of this agreement are clear.

As written, Cafta would benefit a relative few at the expense of the poorest of the poor. Lack of access to lifesaving medicines, lax labor laws and heavily subsidized American produce flooding into the region — forcing small farmers out of work and deeper into poverty, as the North American Free Trade Agreement has already done in Mexico — are all potential hazards of this unjust policy.

We live in a world of both endless possibility and immense injustice. The disparity between the very rich and very poor continues to grow, creating dangerous inequality. A world in which few prosper and many starve offends our commitment to fairness and insults our belief in justice for all.

Bush has already taken a welcome step toward a historic agreement to cancel poor country debt. Working with Blair, he must ensure that other European leaders agree to 100% debt cancellation for all countries in need, increase their donations of humanitarian aid and develop trade agreements without imposing harmful conditions that do more to benefit the rich than the poor they are supposed to be helping.

Every human being is created in the image of God, and as such deserves basic human rights, dignity and respect. It’s time to stop blaming or punishing the poor for being poor, and give them the hand they need to make poverty history.

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