WASHINGTON — The unlikely sight of rock star Bono and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill touring Africa together last week underscored an old symbolic debate, as well as the possibility of a new consensus, on American aid to the developing world.
The two sides of the debate have long had simple and static arguments: Supporters of aid complain that America does not give enough; opponents say US help is wasted by corrupt governments.
But now, challenged by the moral issue of suffering abroad, and the reality that terrorists are exploiting poor countries, conservative American policymakers are talking about how to make development aid effective. The O'Neill-Bono roadshow is only one sign that change may be afoot. Even conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R) now backs more resources to combat AIDS in Africa.
President Bush added the most significant voice on the side of more funds in his recent speech in Mexico, where he urged increases in development aid, acknowledged the importance of new programs, and tied future donations to a recipient country's good behavior. Just as in the cold war, when aid was seen as a strategic tool to block Soviet influence, many leaders now recognize that fighting global poverty may be a strategic US interest in the war on terror.
Still, success in building a new consensus is by no means assured. Each side of the old "more vs. less" aid debate will have to recognize that the other made valid points. Further, Congress will have to help make the consensus truly bipartisan. To succeed, the new consensus will need to be based on three principles:
Helping nations become stable and economically successful will require more aid. The world has more than 800 million malnourished people; double that number live on less than $2 a day. Millions of people in Africa and elsewhere are infected with the AIDS virus, and more than 100 million children do not go to school or have a regular meal a day. The need for more aid is powerful and obvious.
Aid must be much more effective. Fifty years of development aid has not left areas such as Africa appreciably better off, nor does just sending more support seem likely to help. Many programs don't work. The examples are fairly well-known, such as $2 billion to build roads in Tanzania that are in disrepair. When I went to South Africa as part of a Clinton administration delegation, one of the first things Nelson Mandela asked us about a prospective aid program was, "How will it avoid corruption?" We need to be similarly hard-headed in evaluating proposed programs.
Aid can be a strategic tool. Successful development is not just altruistic, it is in America's long-term interest. In Afghanistan, the US sent plenty of aid after the Soviet invasion in 1979, but basically left the country when the Soviets did. The resulting chaos created a vacuum that the Taliban filled.
As in Afghanistan, the removal of superpower involvement in unstable regions has led to a blossoming of regional conflicts and instability. The US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance reported that while in 1985 there were only five so-called man-made emergencies a year (those caused by politics or war), over the past decade the world has averaged four or five times as many each year.
One way to keep building momentum for a foreign aid consensus is to create a shared sense of what the research reveals. Such an effort could start with a bipartisan congressional resolution asking for a coordinated round of independent research by foundations and others into which programs work best, and culminating in congressional hearings. Not only would this process be instructive, it would also by involving Congress give US leaders a stake in the results and set the stage for longer-term policymaking on development aid.
The chance to build a bipartisan consensus for effective aid programs is long overdue, and may well slip away if both sides fall back into old postures. This week Treasury Secretary O'Neill is scheduled to give what is being billed as a major address on the future of US development aid. It is a prime opportunity to move forward in breaking down old left-right divides, one the whole world should be watching.
Tom Freedman, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future.