Foreign Aid
Home Up Fact Sheet

Raw sewage runs through the streets of Cite Soleil, Haiti.

 

"Each year the U.S. contributes just 0.15 of 1 percent of its annual gross national product to relief and development aid.

Charities add only 0.06 percent more.That’s 21 cents for every $100 of income generated in America’s $11 trillion economy each year.

That meager commitment actually makes the U.S. the worst of the West’s penny-pinchers."

 

Kenneth Clarke

2005

 

image:language.works.com

 

 

U.S. Catholic
Published by the Claretians   FEBRUARY, 2005

   

Tsunami warning:

To avoid another disaster, we must stop ignoring a world of want.

Kevin Clarke

In the awful aftermath of the Southeast Asian tsunami, it’s easy to wonder how a merciful and loving God could allow such a catastrophe. But comprehending God’s providence is a challenge even to those among us burdened with divinity degrees, so here’s a more practical question to ponder: How does a merciful and loving humankind stand by while a dozen comparable catastrophes continue year upon year upon year?

While the Asian tsunami seized headlines around the world, a slower, subtle tsunami of poverty and indifference continued its grim work, stealing away thousands of lives each ticking second of each passing day. This “silent tsunami,” as U.N. special advisor on development Jeffrey D. Sachs calls it, is a collection of purely preventable unnatural disasters assailing the world’s poorest people.

If more than 150,000 people snatched away in the blink of an eye is an unspeakable tragedy, how do we assess the loss of 150,000 children who die each month because of malaria? How do we account for the 5 to 7 million children who die each year from hunger? Where are the telethons for the thousands who succumb to diarrhea each day because 2.6 billion people still don’t have access to basic sanitation?

Let’s hope that ours is not a problem of cold hearts but limited imaginations. Certainly when we are jolted from our cultural slumber by specific natural disasters, we do respond generously. The heart-breaking images out of Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Sri Lanka in December and January and the stories of almost unfathomable suffering by parents and orphaned children provoked an appropriate outpouring of prayer, sympathy, and financial support for the survivors.

While individuals in the First World reached deeply into their pockets, it took a U.N. official’s description of Western powers as “stingy” to finally spur their embarrassed governments to do the same. President Bush and Colin Powell responded to those comments with predictably outraged denials, but the rotten truth is that in any honest assessment of the West’s annual commitment to the war on poverty, “stingy” is perhaps too kind a word.

Each year the U.S. contributes just 0.15 of 1 percent of its annual gross national product to relief and development aid. Private donations add only 0.06 percent more—that’s 21 cents for every $100 of income generated in America’s $11 trillion economy each year. That meager commitment actually makes the U.S. the worst of the West’s penny-pinchers.

That stinginess is not without its political and clinical costs. The longer we turn our backs on the moldering poverty in the not-really-developing world, the wider our war on terror is likely to stretch. And as the arrival of HIV, West Nile virus, and other “exotic” illnesses attest, next week’s viral outbreak from within the heart of some darkness is only a plane ride away.

Even the worst effects of disasters like the tsunami could be mitigated if more resources flowed into the developing world. First Worlders invest in stronger dwellings and better infrastructure. That’s why 98 percent of those killed and affected by natural disasters come from developing countries. That figure, according to a recent report from Tearfund, a British relief agency, underlines an underappreciated link between poverty and vulnerability to disaster.

According to Tearfund’s study, thousands of lives and millions in relief money could be saved each year if wealthy nations launched a preemptive strike on disaster risks in vulnerable communities in the developing world. If not, the report notes, “millions of people will never escape the poverty trap, as with each new [disaster], precious gains being made in poverty eradication are being swept away.”

To respond to our world of want, Sachs recommends that Western donors immediately increase their aid to at least 0.5 percent of GNP, a goal he calls “utterly affordable.” As stewards of a great wealth and terrible power, we can continue to sinfully squander our riches on the world’s most shockingly awesome military or we can invest a portion of it in turning back the tsunami of deprivation and despair washing across the developing world. We can help alleviate the worst effects of global poverty, or we can hunker down in fortress America. The choice—and the future—is ours to make. 

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications.

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