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Empire of the Misers
In an April interview with the New York Times, World Bank President James Wolfensohn suggested that in addition to blowing up people and things: "I would argue that there is also a need for a parallel and equally urgent attention to the question of development as a way to prevent terror, and to prevent conflict. . . ." In the interview he observed that the military receive $900 billion each year from world governments and wealthy farmers receive $300 billion. By contrast those same governments spend only $56 billion on development assistance for the poor. Subsequent reports made the point even more forcefully.
On December 9, UNICEF released a report entitled "Childhood Under Threat." It said that over one-half of all the children in the world or more than one billion children suffer extreme deprivation because of war, HIV. and AIDS. It observed that each year the equivalent of the entire population of children under five living in France, Germany, Greece and Italy died from deaths that could have been prevented. Each day 29,158 children under the age of five die. Three thousand nine hundred of those children die because they lack access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
The report also observed that child poverty had worsened in many developed countries, including Finland, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria and Italy. That was offset by the good news that the child poverty rate in the United States had declined from 24.3 percent to 21.9 percent which, however, was accompanied by the bad news that that rate was higher than the poverty rate in any of the countries named.
A report issued two days earlier by the U.N. food and agriculture agency disclosed that 852 million people (or almost three times the number of people living in the United States) suffered chronic malnutrition and five million children a year die because of malnutrition. (The remaining 5 million that Unicef described presumably died from other causes.) Commenting on the report, Florence Chenoweth, the food and agriculture agency representative pointed out that "hunger kills one child every five seconds." If you add the 5 million children from the Unicef report to the equation every 2 seconds a child dies from mostly preventable causes. In the time it takes to read this column anywhere from sixty to more than one hundred children will have died. Most of them never learned to read.
Joining the gloomy statistics reported by the various agencies was one from Oxfam International. It said that the aid budgets of rich nations had dropped by 50 percent since 1960. The report says 45 million children will die by 2015 because the wealthy are not living up to the promises of support they made many years ago. The United States spent .14 percent of national income on foreign aid in 2003. That is one-tenth of what it spent on Iraq. Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam’s Executive Director said: "The world has never been wealthier, yet rich nations are giving less and less. . . . The scandal must end. . . . . Unless world leaders act now to deliver a historic breakthrough on poverty, next year will end in shameful failure."
I’ve bad news for Mr. Hobbs. Shameful failure looms. On December 23 it was reported that as a result of budget deficits and the need to cut back on spending the Bush administration is cutting back on support for global food aid programs. Cutting back on food aid is a good way of reducing spending without impacting the wealthy whose pleas for help are heard and heeded. The cries of the poor are barely audible and cannot be heard in Washington. That’s why George Bush could let it be known, two days before Christmas, that contributions to global food aid programs will be cut. Some charities estimate the cuts will be in the neighborhood of $100 million. On New Year’s day Mr. Bush will use his Saturday radio address to wish everyone a happy new year. It will be happier for the well fed than for the hungry.
(After this was written the Tsunami tragedy struck Asia. As of this writing more than 70,000 have been killed. Mr. Bush has not yet commented. The U.S. initially pledged $15 million to help victims, one half the amount pledged by Japan. In response to criticism the amount pledged was raised to $35 million. That is almost as much as will be spent on the inaugural festivities celebrating the Second Coming of George W. Bush. The inaugural festivities will be more fun than rebuilding the lives of those affected by the tsunami).