By Max J. Castro
In a November 25, 2011, column in the Washington Post (“Ending Global Aid in a Generation”), former British Prime Minister Tony Blair envisions a world in which today’s poor nations would replicate the feat of South Korea, which went from a rural underdeveloped society to a world-class economic powerhouse in less than fifty years.
Forgive me if I take Blair’s sunny outlook and development predictions with more than the usual grain of salt. This, after all, is the same guy that thought George W. Bush’s Iraqi adventure would be a success, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could hit London in 45 minutes, and who gave the U.S. president the crucial moral support needed to sell the war to the American people as a necessary, legitimate and rational undertaking.
Blair also thought that, in return for his fealty to the U.S. administration, Bush would do something effective about global warming and justice for the Palestinians. Bad gambler, incurable optimist, or apologist for the powerful, Blair hasn’t changed his stripes one bit since leaving office.
Glossing over certain inconvenient facts, such as the abject failure of the rich countries to meet the foreign aid levels they set for themselves forty years ago, the former UK leader sees hopeful signs that a few decades from now the capitals of countries like Rwanda and Sierra Leone could be like Busan, South Korea today. That city, once a backwater, is now the fifth busiest commercial port in the world. It is also the place representatives from donor countries recently met to map out a more effective foreign aid strategy for the future.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, the news about foreign aid is hardly encouraging. Close to home, two years after the earthquake that ravaged Haiti, the much-touted international effort to help rebuild the country’s devastated capital and other parts of the country is a mess.
Less than half the $4.6 billion aid package promised by the rich donor nations has been delivered according to a November 25th story by Associated Press reporter Trenton Daniel. The AP story cites Haitian officials who say 120 proposed projects are now on hold.
The ambitious plans envisioned by the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), an international panel co-chaired by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, are in shambles. Amid widespread criticism of the meager accomplishments of the panel, which met only every two months in plush hotels far removed from the daily realities of Haitians still struggling to put a roof over their heads and eke out a living, the Haitian parliament declined to extend the mandate of the IHRC, throwing into question the entire reconstruction scheme.
Undoubtedly, in this case a fair portion of the blame lies with Haiti’s dysfunctional and brazenly corrupt political system, including constant squabbling between parliament and the president and the requirement that each of the IHRC-funded projects the be approved by the Haitian parliament. But corruption – which is endemic in the public sector of less developed countries but is also widespread in the private sector of developed countries as the 2008 financial crisis amply demonstrated – also offers a convenient excuse for rich countries eager to renege on their promises of international assistance.
Thus, as a result of the fecklessness of many of the donor countries and Haiti’s always troubled politics, the grand plan designed by Clinton et al that promised to spark a renaissance that would change the country’s unenviable status as the basket case of the Americas to that of a vibrant emerging economy seems like a dim and distant prospect.
The reality on the ground today is that, while many of the emergency quake camps have been dismantled, this often has been accomplished by forced removal, and many of those who lost their homes in the quake are still without secure housing. A sign of this: The AP reports that “the mountainside shanties ringing Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, seem to be swelling with blue and orange tarp-covered structures.”
The failure of the rich countries to meet their pledges with respect to Haiti reconstruction is no anomaly. In 1970, the rich countries agreed to devote .07 percent of their annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – later changed to Gross Domestic Income (GDI) – to development assistance. Since then, they have provided only an average of between .02 and 0.4 percent, about half the amount pledged.
Only a few countries, mostly Scandinavian, have ever met the .07 percent goal. And while the United States is the largest donor in terms of total dollars, it consistently ranks near the bottom in giving relative to GDI. In addition, to a greater extent than most other countries, U.S. aid is doled out according to geopolitical considerations and conditioned by the economic interests of such domestic industries as shipping and agribusiness.
But the cruelest cut of all, which Tony Blair in his optimism seems to have missed entirely, was announced Wednesday of last week: The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria will not give out any new grants for the next two years.
The Fund, created in 2002 to coordinate international assistance to countries acutely affected by the three lethal diseases, pays for treatment for one of every two patients in poor countries. A spokesman for the organization, which blamed economic troubles in Europe and the United States for a lack of money, says the Fund will not pay for any new patients or programs until 2014.
It would be nice if Tony Blair were proved right and in fifty years foreign aid would no longer be needed. Right now, however, aid is literally a matter of life and death for millions of people who will be contracting AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in the near future or who are already living with these illnesses but have yet to seek treatment.
It has long been clear that the main culprits of the financial crisis and its painful sequel would not be held accountable for the debacle, and the middle class and the poor would pay the highest price. Now we know that for many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world, that price will include life itself.