We Must Put More on the Plate to Fight Global Poverty

Susan E. Rice
Susan E. Rice Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow - School of International Service, American University

July 5, 2005

An unusual groundswell is being felt. Evangelical groups, activists and celebrities are joining forces to urge leaders of the Group of Eight industrial nations this week to “make poverty history.” Live 8 concerts rock the planet to press these nations to commit 0.7 percent of their gross national income to overseas development by 2015, eliminate agricultural subsidies and eradicate disease. For a rare moment, global poverty reduction is near the top of the international agenda. It’s hip. It’s moral. And it’s smart policy.

President Bush and Congress must weigh how much more the United States will invest to meet this challenge. Clearly, the most important ingredients for reducing poverty are improved economic policies and responsible governance in developing countries. But far greater support from rich countries is essential.

To date the Bush administration has embraced limited debt cancellation and announced a new malaria prevention program, but it will not commit to the 0.7 percent target or to ending agricultural subsidies.

Last week the president pledged to double aid to Africa by 2010, but relatively little of that commitment represents new money. Rather, the president can meet this goal simply by keeping his earlier promises to fully fund his Millennium Challenge Account and HIV-AIDS initiative. The president also claims to have “tripled” aid to Africa over the past four years; in fact, total U.S. assistance to Africa has not even doubled. It has increased 56 percent in real dollars from fiscal 2000 to 2004, the last completed fiscal year. More than half of that increase is emergency food aid—not assistance that alleviates poverty.

The Bush administration should rethink its modest commitments, because, as the president argued eloquently, poverty—even in faraway places—undermines U.S. national security. When half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, the United States cannot achieve lasting security purely through the promotion of freedom—unless that freedom includes freedom from want.

Among the most significant challenges the United States faces in an era of globalization are transnational security threats—disease, crime, narcotics trafficking, environmental degradation, weapons proliferation and terrorism—that incubate in conflict zones and weak states.

Numerous studies show that poverty fuels conflict. Britain’s Department of International Development found that countries with per capita gross domestic product of less than $250 face a 15 percent chance of conflict within the next five years. When per capita income reaches $1,000, the risk drops dramatically, and at $5,000 it is less than 1 percent. Conflicts cost lives and may require outside humanitarian intervention, but they also create the anarchic environment for external predators. Al Qaeda established training camps in conflict-ridden Afghanistan, purchased diamonds from Sierra Leone, raised recruits in Chechnya and targeted American soldiers in Somalia (and now Iraq). Crime and drug networks have exploited war zones in Colombia and Bosnia. New diseases, such as the Ebola, Marburg and West Nile viruses, emerged from Congo, Angola and Uganda.

Absent conflict, poverty still impedes countries’ capacity to join with the United States in countering transnational threats. In 2004, 53 nations in various regions had average per capita gross national income of less than $2 per day. Each of these countries is a potential weak link in U.S. efforts to gain effective global cooperation.

When states are poor, they often cannot fully control their territory or resources because they lack capable police, border control agencies, or a well-functioning judiciary or military; further, their officials may be especially vulnerable to corruption. Al Qaeda and its affiliates have taken sanctuary—and attacked and raised funds—in weak states from Mauritania and Kenya to Yemen. International criminal syndicates find fertile ground in Haiti, Tajikistan and Nigeria.

Poor countries are weak in other respects. Often unable to meet their citizens’ basic needs for food, education and health care, such states are easy prey for extremist religious groups and charities. In Pakistan and Mali, Wahhabist organizations offer free schooling, meals and clinics in exchange for indoctrination.

The poorest countries also lack the health care infrastructure to detect, treat and contain deadly diseases. While 90 percent of the world’s disease burden falls on low- and middle-income countries, these states account for only 11 percent of global health spending. With 2 million travelers crossing international borders each day, an outbreak in Vietnam of avian flu, if transmissible from human to human, could reach our shores almost instantly. The World Health Organization estimates the global death toll would be in the millions.

Neither disease nor terrorism are threats we can counter without reducing conflict and strengthening weak states’ will and capacity to cooperate effectively with the United States. By taking bold steps at the G-8 meeting to reduce poverty, the United States can build goodwill, limit conflict and increase state capacity.

Promoting development, as well as democracy, in distant countries is a 21st-century security imperative.