Foreign Aid that Fights Hunger
Washington Watch November 2008
WASHINGTON WATCH David Beckmann Foreign Aid That Fights Hunger The cost of a gallon of gas has shot up —to 25 cents. A loaf of bread costs 21 cents; milk is even more expensive at $1.50 a gallon.You can buy a new home for $12,500. The average income of an American family is $5,315. Kids in school learn about the world through filmstrips. There are wars going on—the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Africa is throwing off the cloak of colonialism. Military regimes rule Latin America. South Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world.And President Kennedy just signed the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act into law. It’s intended to help poor countries worldwide get on their feet and build stronger nations as a defense against Soviet intentions to rule the world. Nearly 50 years later, not much remains the same in the United States or in the world. But the way the United States delivers aid to the world’s poorest nations is still being driven by the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act. Currently about half of US foreign assistance is focused on reducing poverty. The other half is directed toward economic assistance for political allies and purposes, military training and equipment to countries, and funding for the war on drugs. Long-term development assistance aimed at reducing poverty includes aid for agriculture, nutrition, and clean water initiatives; investments in schools and teacher training; anti-retroviral medications for people suffering from HIV/ AIDS; and investments in economic development to break the cycle of poverty. Development assistance helps raise people’s incomes and improve their nutrition and overall health so they have an economic safety net and can build bet- ter lives for their children. Poverty-focused development assistance from the United States is making a difference for millions of people around the world—but it could be made far more effective. Right now development policies and programs are scattered across 12 departments, 25 agencies, and nearly 60 government offices. A more efficient foreign assistance system—with better coordination, better accountability, better clarity—means that people get help faster and more effectively. We also need to ensure that other key foreign policies do not undermine the impact of development assistance. Why is this so important? Consider Bangladesh, where more than 150 million people live in a land area slightly smaller than Iowa. Since its birth as a nation in 1971, Bangladesh has struggled to overcome daunting problems. One-third of this low-lying nation floods every year during the monsoon season. In 2007 the average person’s income was just $470. While Bangladesh is overcoming these setbacks and making progress, it is just not enough. From 2000 to 2004, its economy grew at an average rate of 5.8 percent annually. With 2 million more people entering the labor force each year, economists estimate that Bangladesh needs to grow at least 7 to 8 percent annually so it can pull itself out of poverty. In 2006 Bangladesh received more than $85 million in US development assistance. However, Bangladesh paid the United States more than $487 million in trade tariffs in 2005. That’s nearly six times more than it received in US aid. Bangladesh is not the only country facing this problem. The leading British medical journal, The Lancet, recently found that the amount of assistance available worldwide for nutrition—assistance that saves the lives of vulnerable babies and toddlers—is “vastly outweighed” by the cost to rural populations of agricultural subsidies and protectionism in highPRISM 2008 32 income countries. US trade policies should support developing country farmers, not make their work more difficult. Our country needs a plan to identify and respond to contradictions like these. Better coordination is not a matter of bureaucracy—it is a matter of the United States doing all it can to end extreme hunger and poverty in God’s world. Right now the world is in the midst of a global hunger crisis, a “silent tsunami” that threatens the lives of millions of people. This crisis should be a wakeup call for the United States to rethink foreign assistance and elevate global development as a national priority. In 1961, 33 percent of the world’s population suffered from hunger. Today that number has decreased to 17 percent. If foreign aid is fixed, there will be fewer hungry people, fewer children will die, and parents will be able to feed their families in the years to come. In 2009 the new US president and Congress will be presented with a oncein-a-generation opportunity to make US foreign assistance more effective in reducing poverty. Bread for the World’s 2009 Offering of Letters campaign will press decision-makers to fix foreign aid. Thousands of Christians will write, phone, and visit their members of Congress. Churches will take up a nationwide offering of letters to Congress. Campuses and other community groups will join in this effort to make ending poverty a national priority. The world is different today from what it was in 1961. But hunger feels the same: an aching emptiness. And it can still kill. We can stop it—if we act now and make changes that are decades overdue. ★ Rev. David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s decision makers to end hunger. To learn how you and your church can participate in Bread for the World’s 2009 Offering of Letters campaign, visit Bread.org.