Tears for mankind

These are not the best of times for pleas to aid the world's poor. Yet when so cool and unemotional a public figure as Robert McNamara breaks down in tearful anguish over global poverty, the well-to-do nations ought to sit up and take notice. Poverty, said Mr. McNamara in his valedictory speech as president of the World Bank, "is an open insult to the human dignity of us all. . . for we have collectively had it in our power to do more to fight poverty, and we have failed to do so." That is a stern indictment. It is also a ringing challenge.

So much of the focus of foreign policy seems to be on maintaining superpower balances, building up military forces, establishing bases, dispatching convoys. These may be necessary preoccupations. But it is a grave mistake to think that military might will solve the fundamental problems of mankind, yearning for social and economic progress. Or that it will prevent the convulsions and upheavals threatened if such progress is frustrated. It is sobering to be reminded that more than one quarter of the world's people live in desperate destitution.

Much progress has been made in the developing world, thanks to the efforts of individual nations and such institutions as the World Bank. The picture is by no means all bleak. But Mr. McNamara warns of deteriorating economic prospects for the poorer countries -- largely because of rising energy costs -- and of the need for a more generous spirit of giving. He especially singles out the United States, which has a poorer record of aid in relation to its wealth than any noncommunist industrial nation. This year the US will allocate only 0.18 percent of its gross national product for foreign aid as against an average of 0 .34 percent for all the industrial nations. This indeed is "disgraceful."

Unfortunately, too many people think of foreign aid as simply pouring money into a bottomless pit. Yet the fact is that economic development has become much more sophisticated and efficient in the past two decades, with more aid reaching those who need it rather than the elite of the impoverished countries. No longer are World Bank loans being granted, for instance, without requiring certain standards of local governments. Mr. McNamara himself calls attention to the need for structural changes in the developing lands. The responsibility of the poor to do their part is widely acknowledged.

But they cannot do so without a helping hand from the well-to-do -- just as today's well-to-do became prosperous partly because of their colonies or because , like the US, they, too, at one time had aid from others. We arem one world, and the stability and moral fabric of that world depends on our ability compassionately to cooperate with and help each other. The question is whether the rich nations will summon up that "clear, strong, and bold vision" of which Mr. McNamara spoke to measure up to the challenge before them. The globe is bound to be a happier -- and more secure -- place if they do.

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