January 10, 2006, Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times
Waging a War We Could Be Proud Of
By Nicholas D. Kristof
Puttalam, Sri Lanka
One of the lessons of the tsunami a year ago is that however stingy we Americans have been in giving foreign aid, we want to do better.
For every $100 of national income, the U.S. gives 17 cents in overseas development assistance - a lower percentage than any donor country except Italy. But after the tsunami, Americans responded with a wave of stunning generosity, and there is growing bipartisan support for helping poor countries.
It's an opportunity that President Bush should seize, by working with Tony Blair and Kofi Annan to wage a Global War on Poverty.
President Bush could help revive his floundering presidency by providing moral leadership to the world. He has taken half-steps in this direction, with his landmark programs against AIDS in Africa and against sex trafficking, but his overall efforts against global poverty have been grudging. It's sad when we must rely on a compassionate rock star, Bono, or a generous computer geek, Bill Gates, for moral vision on poverty - instead of on our president.
If the tsunami demonstrated how generous Americans could be, it also showed the blindness of a system that responds to natural disasters but neglects ongoing suffering. For example, here in the northwestern Sri Lankan town of Puttalam, people might be better off if the tsunami had reached this far and sucked a few victims out to sea.
That's because people in this area have been sitting in shantytowns for 15 years after being displaced by civil war, yet they have never gotten half the help that has gone to tsunami victims. Unicef showed me around a hospital where a 13-year-old boy, Abdul Quadar, is so malnourished that he stands just 3 feet 9 inches tall and weighs just 26 pounds. The average 1-year-old American boy weighs that much.
Abdul Quadar is smart and ranks 19th out of 50 in his school class, but he is just about starving to death.
Perhaps the malnutrition results from neglect (he's one of 10 children), or perhaps from some underlying disease like tuberculosis or AIDS. But the hospital says this is the first time that a doctor has seen him.
If we are to help kids like Abdul Quadar, we can't wait for tsunamis. We need a War on Global Poverty, and I suggest that it focus on three elements that might capture public imagination and support.
Wiping out malaria Each year, malaria kills about two million people, many of them children, and it helps stifle economic growth in Africa. Yet demonstration programs have shown us how to control it: with treated bed nets and low-level DDT spraying, coupled with cheap medicines. It's a disgrace that we let two million people a year die unnecessarily.
Cutting maternal mortality in half Every year, more than half a million women die in pregnancy and childbirth, and many more suffer injuries like fistulas. Countries like Honduras and Sri Lanka have shown us how to cut maternal deaths - what is lacking is simply the will to do it.
Educating girls If women are literate, they hold better jobs and have fewer, healthier children. They also learn how to complain about injustice (my next column, on Sunday, will tell of an educated Indian woman who has become a champion complainer).
Some fine groups already tackle these problems. TamTam Africa fights malaria. Averting Maternal Death and Disability saves mothers. The World Food Program and Unicef run a terrific school feeding program that keeps girls in class. But these are a drop of water in an ocean of need.
To be sure, the real solution to poverty isn't cash handouts, but economic growth. What distinguishes the African countries that are doing well, like Botswana or Rwanda or Mauritius or Mozambique, is good governance, which promotes growth. That's why it's also crucial to encourage African leaders to nurture markets, trade and investment - and to push out thugs like Robert Mugabe.
If President Bush took on global poverty in a major way, I think the American people would sign on enthusiastically. And Laura Bush, who has shown an interest in women in the developing world, could greatly assist. Just as John Kennedy bolstered America's image in the world when he started the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress, we could restore luster to our reputation around the globe.
What we need is leadership. Mr. Bush would do wonders for his legacy - and, above all, wonders for the poor - if he'd summon the moral vision to launch a high-profile Global War on Poverty. That is one American-backed war that nearly all the world would thunderously applaud.