The foreign aid gap

DID THE SPIRIT OF BONO somehow possess the body of President Bush on Wednesday? How else to explain the president’s speech before the United Nations? He sounded more like a crusading anti-poverty rocker -- or, worse on the bleeding-heart scale, a European president -- than the man whose ambassador to the U.N. has been working behind the scenes to sabotage the world’s most important anti-poverty initiative.

“To spread a vision of hope, the United States is determined to help nations that are struggling with poverty,” Bush told more than 160 world leaders at the U.N. summit, which runs through Friday. “We are committed to the Millennium Development Goals.... We have a moral obligation to help others -- and a moral duty to make sure our actions are effective.”

But not, apparently, a moral obligation to live up to our commitments, or even tell the truth about them.

The Millennium Development Goals were approved by the U.N. in 2000. They constitute a revolutionary document, setting out objectives such as halving extreme poverty, reducing disease and child mortality and boosting education in the world’s poorest nations by 2015. To make them a reality, U.N. members, including the United States, agreed in 2002 at a summit in Monterrey, Mexico, that wealthy nations would “make concrete efforts” to contribute 0.7% of their national income toward foreign aid by 2015.


At this week’s summit, world leaders were supposed to adopt a set of reforms that would have improved the U.N.'s management and strengthened its ability to fight poverty and promote human rights. But John R. Bolton, appointed as ambassador to the U.N. by Bush after the Senate failed to confirm him, threw negotiators into disarray last month by introducing hundreds of last-minute amendments. Among them was the deletion of nearly all references to the millennium goals and the 0.7% target. Under pressure, Bolton relented and allowed the language to remain.

The Bush administration has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of trying to reach the 0.7% goal. The United States has the second-worst record of the 22 donor nations whose contributions as a percentage of national income are tracked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, giving just 0.16% in 2004 (only Italy is stingier). The European Union’s 15 richest members, despite Italy’s poor showing, agreed this year to contribute 0.51% of national income by 2010 and 0.7% by 2015.

Administration officials have said the 0.7% figure is arbitrary, that it represents a goal rather than a concrete commitment, that quality of aid is more important than quantity and that, at any rate, the United States has increased foreign aid dramatically. Wrong or misleading on all counts but the last.

Whether the 0.7% number is arbitrary is irrelevant; what matters is whether it’s adequate. By that measure, if anything, it’s too timid. The U.N. Millennium Project estimates that even if all the commitments are met, it may fall short of the amount needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Though the Monterrey statement wasn’t very concrete, such vagueness is typical of international agreements; if heads of state don’t intend to follow them, they shouldn’t approve them. And the administration’s statements on quality would be more convincing if its record in that area weren’t so abysmal.


In its Human Development Report released last week, the U.N. identified several problems that make foreign aid less effective than it should be. Sometimes donors make aid contingent on onerous conditions; often they fail to coordinate similar projects, leading to repetition and waste. The United States is a prime offender in nearly every area. Particularly egregious is the practice of “tied aid” -- the requirement that aid money be spent on goods and services from the donating country. U.S. aid money is commonly spent on expensive American contractors rather than given directly to poor nations, where it would do far more good.

The administration’s best defense is that it has increased foreign aid, albeit from a paltry 0.1% of national income in 2000 to 0.16% last year. President Bush also deserves credit for making foreign aid a priority in a country where African poverty seldom shows up on the political radar screen. Yet this has the effect of making the administration’s truculence on the Millennium Development Goals all the more frustrating.

The administration has not met its commitments, and the president has failed to live up to his own inspirational rhetoric. Until it has and he does, speeches like the one Bush delivered on Wednesday will continue to be seen as cynical political ploys.




Foreign aid

Contributions as a percentage of national income, 2004

Norway: .87%


Denmark: .84%

Netherlands: .74%

Portugal: .63%

France: .42%


Britain: .36%

Germany: .28%

Japan: .19%

United States: .16%


Italy: .15%

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development