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Failing the World's Poor

September 24, 2008, New York Times, Failing the World's Poor, editorial.

Good intentions wither fast, especially when it comes to helping the world’s poor.

At the turn of the millennium, world leaders committed to cutting extreme global poverty in half and to achieving deep reductions in malnutrition and child mortality rates. They followed that up in 2005 with a pledge to increase development assistance to $130 billion a year by 2010 (about $151 billion in today’s money).

That was then. Today, even as soaring energy and food prices exacerbate the suffering of the world’s poor, the richest nations are falling far behind on their aid commitments — and behind their past giving.

The current financial turmoil could make it even less likely that the wealthy nations will fulfill their promises to the poorest of the poor. Without that money, many of the development goals announced with such fanfare will go unmet.

Aid from the world’s developed countries fell by almost 13 percent between 2005 and 2007 — to under $104 billion, after inflation. The aggregate aid budget of the most developed nations amounts to 0.28 percent of their gross national income, woefully below the target of 0.7 percent agreed to by world leaders in 2002 .

Only Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Denmark meet the target. Canada’s overseas aid amounts to 0.28 percent of its income. Japan’s is 0.17 percent. The United States, shamefully, is at the bottom of the list, spending 0.16 percent of its income on development assistance.

Many countries tie too many strings to their largess — such as requirements to buy supplies from donor countries. (Aid flows are often swayed by domestic politics in the donor nations, making them unpredictable and difficult to manage by receiving nations.)

Aid isn’t the only area where the developed world is failing. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, wealthy countries acknowledged that poverty can be a fertile ground for terrorism and pledged to open their markets to exports from the world’s poorest nations. Those promises collapsed along with global trade talks this year.

The world’s poor still desperately needs the help. According to a new World Bank study, 1.4 billion people lived in extreme poverty in 2005. Twenty-seven percent of children under 5 in the developing world were underweight. Their mortality rate was 83 per 1,000 live births, about 14 times the rate in rich nations. And whatever gains have been made against the most abject poverty, they risk being undone by the rising price of food.

Speaking to the United Nations this week, the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, warned that the world is facing a “development crisis,” and he expressed his fear that wealthy nations would now fall even further behind in their commitments. We share that fear.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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