Bono-fied increase in foreign aid, with strings

Joined by U2 rocker, president earmarks more to fight global poverty, if spent 'right.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Bush to Bono: Hey guy, we care about the world, too.

The American President and the Irish rock superstar might seem to be an unlikely couple, but when it comes to aid to poor countries, the two see eye to eye.

Or at least each sees how to use the other for his purposes.

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With Bono out to increase the rich world's assistance for developing nations and the fight against AIDS, and Mr. Bush keen on shining up his international image prior to an international conference on development aid in Mexico later this week, the two are linking arms to address global poverty.

After meetings with congressional leaders, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and even National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, the singer for the band U2 with the cool blue shades visited the White House last Thursday.

On the same day, Bush unveiled what he called "a new compact for global development," under which the United States pledges to increase foreign aid in return for accountability, economic reforms, and a commitment to human rights.

The Bush plan calls for a $5 billion increase in US foreign aid over three years, in the form of grants to qualifying countries. Currently the US devotes about $10 billion a year to foreign aid – an amount that leaves it bringing up the rear on the list of wealthy countries and the percentage of their wealth that they spend on international assistance.

But with the US leading a global war on terrorism, foreign aid has grown in importance. The president frequently cites a need to address the problems of the world's poor that can serve as seedbeds of terrorism.

IN a speech at the Inter-American Development Bank in which he announced the aid increase, Bush explained his view of how poverty can result in terrorism. "Poverty doesn't cause terrorism. ... Yet persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair." With Bono at his side, the President continued, "And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror."

The increased aid, which still must be approved by Congress, should allow Bush to attend the Mexico conference on slightly better footing. Over recent weeks, European countries and even the World Bank have criticized the US for doing too little for global poverty reduction – noting, for example, that US aid is at its lowest levels since World War II.

In another stab at portraying America as generous before the Mexico meeting, Bush announced in his regular radio address Saturday that American children have donated more than $4 million to help the children of Afghanistan.

As proposed by Bush, the new aid money wouldn't start until 2004. The Bush administration. wants time to reform the World Bank and the way foreign aid is spent.

Most foreign-aid advocates and development specialists say they are pleased with the new US commitment – although they generally add that Bush's proposal still does not provide the amount of aid they'd like to see from the US. World Bank specialists have advocated an increase in US foreign aid of one-tenth of 1 percent of GNP – or about $10 billion annually.

"This is a great move in the right direction; it reaffirms the US commitment to reducing poverty and inequality in the world," says Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children.

Like other development advocates, Dr. MacCormack says the proposed aid increase may not be everything he hoped for, but he placed the responsibility for achieving even more assistance in the future squarely with relief organizations.

"If we can demonstrate that life-saving results are being reached with this additional funding, I believe the president and the Congress can be convinced to respond yet again," he says. "The demand will be there for accountability and results."

Relief and development organizations, which just weeks ago were critical of the Bush administration for not putting dollars behind the talk of poverty reduction, now say their work will be twofold: First, to make sure Congress approves the Bush increase; and then to work with the administration on the criteria to be applied to countries in line for the new money.

While specialists say they support Bush's accent on accountability and transparency in aid spending, they also fear high standards could end up limiting work in poor countries with inefficient and corrupt governments.

"We must be mindful not to leave behind people in nations that will not meet these criteria, it's critical for America's security and for world stability," says Mary McClymont, president of InterAction, a consortium of 160 US-based development groups.

InterAction spokesman Sid Balman notes, for example, that under any plausible criteria "Afghanistan a year ago would not have been eligible for a dime. Yet it's a clear case that meets the president's test of failed states where terrorism can germinate."

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