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A promise unkept

The world's wealthy nations have failed to live up to a pledge to help reduce global poverty and disease.

September 05, 2008

At the turn of the century, 22 wealthy nations, including the United States, vowed to dramatically increase their foreign aid commitments in order to meet 15 goals aimed at reducing poverty and disease in the developing world. The vow to achieve those Millennium Development Goals is reaffirmed every year by leaders of the Group of 8 nations -- yet they are making remarkably little effort to keep it. Not only is development assistance failing to rise as quickly as promised, it has actually been falling in real dollars for the last two years, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations.

The report comes in advance of a U.N. meeting this month at which member nations will discuss progress toward the millennium goals. It stands to be a contentious session, given the shameful failure by donor nations. In 2006, development assistance fell by 4.7%, then dropped another 8.4% in 2007. Though industrialized countries made a commitment to raise their aid contributions to 0.7% of national income by 2015, the figure in 2007 was only 0.28%, according to the United Nations. Unless attitudes shift dramatically in Europe, North America and Japan, it will be impossible to hit the target in the seven remaining years.

President Bush has rightly been lauded for creating programs aimed at fighting disease and boosting economies in poor countries, but the progress still falls far short of what's needed. The United States remains an embarrassing laggard in the development arena, contributing just 0.16% of national income last year. The European Union is doing better, giving 0.38% in 2007, but even that falls short of the target and represents a decrease from the previous year. The reason for the drop, both in Europe and worldwide, is that rich countries are no longer offering the generous debt-relief packages they approved in 2005.

Sending money overseas is hard to justify when the economy sputters and people are suffering at home, which may be why neither of the major-party U.S. presidential candidates has much to say about foreign aid. Yet there are few better investments toward world peace. That point was eloquently made in the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy, which stated, "Development reinforces diplomacy and defense, reducing long-term threats to our national security by helping to build stable, prosperous and peaceful societies."

Fighting Third World poverty also staves off overpopulation and environmental crises, and prevents exotic diseases that breed in places like sub-Saharan Africa from crossing oceans. In a smaller world, a bigger portion of the national budget must be devoted to aid.

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