Monday, September 12, 2005

[MDGs]: The US fight against the fight against poverty

By Jeffrey Sachs
Monday, September 12

The negotiations on the draft declaration for the World Summit - which opens on Tuesday - have been nothing short of bizarre. The United States government has fought a relentless battle to dissociate itself from specific obligations regarding international development, and has tried repeatedly to the quash obligations that it has taken on the past. All of this has been taking place at a time when the US itself has become an aid recipient, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The opening salvo a couple of weeks ago was the remarkable assertion by the United States government that the Millennium Development Goals do not even exist, so that the phrase itself should be expunged from the document. This was news to the rest of the world, who were gathering at the Summit first and foremost to find ways to reinforce the Millennium Development Goals. The US claimed that it had signed the Millennium Declaration but not the Millennium Development Goals.

The argument was not very impressive. All 18 of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals - to halve hunger, fight disease, reduce maternal mortality, ensure access to safe drinking water, and more - are explicitly part of the Millennium Declaration. With 190 countries standing in opposition to the US position, the US relented.

The longer battle has ensued around official development assistance and the target of 0.7 percent of GNP in official development aid. It seems at times that all US foreign policy regarding economic development revolves around the US insistence to pay almost nothing to help the poorest countries.

US official aid levels are 0.16 percent of GNP, an increase from 0.10 percent when President Bush took office but still the lowest or second lowest of all donors (vying with Italy for the bottom slot). US aid levels for Africa are 0.03 percent of GNP, meaning that the US gives Africa just 3 cents in aid for every $100 of US GNP. Much of the rest of US aid still goes to “strategic” countries such as Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt, or to US consultant salaries.

Why the US government is so dead-set against doing more to help impoverished and dying people is one of the great mysteries of our time. It’s not as if the poorest countries are asking for an open checkbook or an unconstrained line of credit. They are asking for rich countries to honor a modest commitment, a mere 0.7 percent of GNP, roughly one seventh of what the US is spending this year on the military and one third of what the US has spent on tax cuts in the first Bush term.

Just as with the Millennium Development Goals, the US government has worked overtime to huff and puff that it never signed the 0.7 target, and thus should not be bound by it. Even if it were true that the U.S. had never signed on, the sight of the world’s richest country denying a long-standing international target in this manner is stunning. The US signed on to the 0.7 target in the Monterrey Conference on Financing for Development in March 2002. It has since bobbed and weaved to evade the implications of that agreement.

In paragraph 42 of the Monterrey Consensus, the US and other signatories declared that they “urge developed countries that have not done so to make concrete efforts toward the target of 0.7 percent of GNP in official development assistance.”

The European Union took up its pledge, and has defined “concrete efforts” as a new timetable to reach 0.56 percent of GNP in official aid by 2010 and 0.7 percent of GNP by 2015. The US on its side has simply been claiming that the target does not exist, and telling some in the corridors that signing the Monterrey pledge had been a mistake.

This aggressive position has continued down to the details. The US has fought commitments to a “Quick Win” against malaria through the mass distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets and effective medications. It has resisted commitments to quick wins in other areas as well. In the end, every specific target and timetable to help the world’s poorest of the poor has come under US fire.

The US fight against the fight against poverty would be bizarre at any moment (remember John Kennedy pledging “to those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required”) but it has been especially shocking in the face of Hurricane Katrina. The US is accepting aid from UN agencies, Mexico, Europe, and others, at the very moment it is working overtime to avoid or evade commitments to the poorest of the poor, who are dying by the millions each year due to insufficient assistance from the donor countries.

There is a silver lining in all of this, believe it or not. The American people have been aghast at the failures of Washington to prepare for, and then address, the hurricane. They have been shocked that President Bush could declare that “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees [in New Orleans]” when that risk was notorious and had been discussed for decades.

Similarly, whenever they have gotten a glimpse of the UN negotiations, they have been shocked. Though the American people know little about the Millennium Development Goals (since President Bush has perhaps never even uttered the phrase), editorial writers around the country, in both liberal and conservative regions, were dismayed that the US delegation was working in America’s name to undercut the world’s measurable and monitorable poverty alleviation targets that provide a clear framework for accountable results.

Perhaps the most notable bottom line this week will be that the voices of the poor are finally piercing the deep layers of indifference and misdirection.

Professor Sachs is a director of the Earth Institute at Columbia Universityand author of The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005).