Image credit: EuropeAid - Photo: 2013

The Longest War is the War on Global Poverty

By Nimal Fernando* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) – The ‘new year’ is already over a month old and all pointers are that at least one very old global issue is only that much older.

There is much reference to the ‘longest’ wars of the fiery kind, but less, perhaps, to the often silent, near-Sisyphean struggle against global poverty. Many concerned voices would argue that 2013 could be among the worst years in which to even embark on any kind of lasting progress on this front.

Four decades after development warrior Robert McNamara launched his attack on global poverty in his capacity as World Bank president, there are still 1.2 billion people in the world barely surviving on $1 a day and two billion living on $2 a day. Another concerned American, James Baker, U.S. treasury secretary in the late eighties, argued for just $20 billion then, to put “a floor under poverty”.

That proved to be a non-starter because the Baker plan involved the bulk of that money coming from commercial banks. But given the Latin American loan default some months earlier, commercial bankers refused to come aboard. The world simply added that to its list of failed initiatives.

And a decade has passed since another World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, spoke with great passion at a global conference in Dubai, that this world was out of balance and something needed to be done urgently “or we would all suffer”.

The world’s poor have also long lost two of their most passionate spokespersons – Germany’s Nobel Laureate Willy Brandt and Sweden’s Olaf Palme. Along with McNamara and former Commonwealth Secretary General Shridath Ramphal, they were tireless advocates of an interdependent world. Among some new voices, thankfully, that have taken their place roughly over the past decade and more, are Britain’s Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Claire Short.

The lead nation throughout this concerted drive against the many causes that contribute to global poverty has been the United States. What’s worrisome right now is America’s willingness, really its ability, to spearhead this initiative and remain among the large donors of development aid. The research world, replete with data often of the sobering kind, puts the number of Americans living in poverty at 46.1 million or just over 15 percent of the population.

Yet, the reaction to such distressing data particularly among some Republicans in a dysfunctional congress, in recent months, has been an attack on the Food Stamp programme, with presidential hopeful and former speaker Newt Gingrich calling President Barack Obama the “Food Stamp president”. Even as the richest nation in the world battles its own near-alarming crises such as the fiscal default and stubborn unemployment, it wouldn’t be out of place to suggest that the ‘enthusiasm’ for more aid to the world’s impoverished would be much diminished.

Those arguing for far larger amounts of net aid complain that foreign aid is not all that it’s cracked up to be; that the sums are far shorter than the UN target of 0.7 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Given that it’s generally accepted that the best way to measure aid generosity is to look at it as a percentage of GDP, the rest of the field trails Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Luxembourg. All these nations have far exceeded the 0.7 percent UN target.

The United States is the biggest donor in absolute terms, but the ODA-GDP ratio in percentage terms in 2010 was about 0.2 percent. If Congress passes President Obama’s proposal to double giving, however, America will be able to strike a more relaxed stance among the heavy-hitters.

Regular – almost always grim – reports from international aid agencies seem to suggest that nothing short of a magic wand would do – and that one indeed exists.

World’s richest could end poverty

The international aid agency, Oxfam International, said in a recent such report that the world’s 100 richest people could essentially end poverty with their earnings in 2012. They earned $240 billion last year – a figure that Oxfam, an international coalition of 17 organizations working in 90 countries focusing on inequality and the poor, said could end poverty around four times over.

“It is now widely accepted that rapidly growing extreme wealth and inequality are harmful to human progress, and that something needs to be done,” said Oxfam, while citing a report from the World Economic Forum that rated income inequality as one of the global risks of 2013.

It added in a press release: “The richest one per cent has increased its income by 60 percent in the last 20 years with the financial crisis accelerating rather than slowing the process.”

In 14 of the 19 leading wealthy and developing nations of the Group of 20, inequality has increased since 1990, the aid group said, adding that economic growth has rarely provided benefit to poor people.

Oxfam warned that “extreme wealth and income is not only unethical, it is also economically inefficient, politically corrosive, socially divisive and environmentally destructive.”

Absent from among all these compelling reports, however, is what could well prove to be the most pressing issue that will have a direct impact on foreign aid: the expanding war on terrorism. And what is most worrisome in recent reports on the ‘War on Terror’ is the disproportionate sums spent on a “declining threat”.

There are suggestions among battle-hardened experts that Al Qaeda and lesser known terror groups are succeeding, even beyond their wildest expectations, in bleeding not just the American exchequer, but those of a few other western nations as well.

The New York Times, which had conducted a recent survey of estimated counter-terrorism expenditure, reports that while Al Qaeda spent roughly half a million dollars to destroy the World Trade Center and cripple the Pentagon, the cost to the United States in counter measures has been $3.3 trillion, or about $7 million for every dollar Al Qaeda spent planning and executing the attacks. The report adds that while not all of the costs have been borne by the government — and some are still to come — this total equals one-fifth of the current national debt.

The most recent issue of the National Counter Terrorism Center’s annual Report on Terrorism covering the year 2011, says that worldwide terrorist attacks in 2011 were down 12 percent from 2010 and 29 percent from 2007. Most attacks, and most victims, roughly 65 percent, came from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Somalia.

It says Al-Qaeda, the gold-standard terrorist group, is in sharp decline, staging far fewer attacks worldwide except in one country, Somalia.

Americans are hearing many of their elected leaders, from Congress down to rural mayors, emphasising both a need for, and possibility of, doing more with less.

Hopefully, a more sensible strategy, which will translate to huge savings on the counter-terror front, will see far more being done with more – both at home and in far flung, dirt poor places of the global village.

*Nimal Fernando, former ‘Ceylon Observer’ (Sri Lanka) and ‘Gulf News’ (United Arab Emirates) journalist, is a freelance writer in the United States. [IDN-InDepthNews – February 10, 2013]

Copyright © 2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Image credit: EuropeAid

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