Reduce poverty - get a safer world

As nations gathered at the UN General Assembly in September, it became alarmingly clear that two distinct worlds are pursuing two different agendas. While security is the common denominator, these two worlds - the rich nations and the poor nations - view the threats to their security quite differently.

President Bush challenged the international community to remain vigilant in its campaign against international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, reflecting the view that these are the greatest challenges to the physical security and way of life in the West. As they have previously, those in the developing world responded to his "with us, or against us" tone with stony silence.

Although sympathetic to these security challenges, poor nations believe that their safety is most compromised not by terrorism but by debilitating poverty. As such, in their public addresses they tried to galvanize the international community to support an international antipoverty campaign.

It was like ships passing in the night. Neither side was listening to the other. The Bush administration needs to demonstrate genuine leadership, showing that the US is ready to lead not only to promote its agenda, but to advance global needs.

A good start for a more productive dialogue would be for the US to acknowledge this gap between the two worlds. UN reports reveal a very disturbing state of affairs. The richest 1 percent in the world enjoy the same amount of resources consumed by the entire bottom 50 percent. Few in the world of affluence ever experience chronic starvation; many in the world of poverty know little else. Only a small minority of parents in the US ever experience the trauma of having a child die before the age of 5; nearly 10 percent of parents in the poorest countries do. In the world of affluence, parents worry increasingly about childhood obesity; in the world of poverty, nearly 163 million children are malnourished. An American child born in 2004 has a life expectancy well into her 70s, will learn to read and write, and is likely to complete an advanced degree. A child born in Angola has a life expectancy of 46 and little chance of finishing high school; less than half of all Angolans gain enough education to read a newspaper.

There are several reasons the US must direct urgent attention to the issue of global poverty. The US expects cooperation from a range of countries in the southern hemisphere in its fight against terrorism. But cooperation comes at a price, and those developing nations expect that if they are attentive to American security interests then the US will address their development needs. The failure to reciprocate might cost important allies.

There is also a complicated but tangible connection between poverty and regional and global violence. Many of the terrorists connected with the Sept. 11 attacks did not envision themselves as Islamic Robin Hoods. Yet economic despair and the loss of faith in a better future create greater sympathy for groups that rise against the West. Poverty and its maladies also are helping to produce the failed states that the US views as potential breeding grounds for terrorism. Even if these societies do not fail utterly, poverty contributes to the violent conflicts, refugee movements, environmental disasters, and spreading disease that ultimately affect those in the West.

There are several ways that the US can demonstrate it is ready to provide leadership in the campaign against poverty. It can start by contributing more toward reaching the United Nations Millennium Goals. Four years ago, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan established benchmarks for eradicating hunger and poverty, achieving universal education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, and combating diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. Although the US has formally pledged to contribute, not only has it failed to lead, but it frequently lags behind.

Two years ago, the Bush administration tried to demonstrate its concern for the problems faced by the developing world by proposing to contribute $15 billion to the global effort to combat AIDS. Very little money has been disbursed, and the poor nations' cynicism has been reinforced. Although the Bush administration insists that free trade is the path to development, not only does it not practice what it preaches, but its trade policies undermine the ability of poor countries to export to American markets. The US indulges domestic producers with generous subsidies that directly hurt the ability of developing-world farmers to export their goods. While the US contributes less than any other industrial nation on a per capita basis to the $50 billion in annual development assistance, it spends more than $300 billion a year in subsidies for its farm products. It is no wonder that developing nations are joining together to disrupt Western efforts to create an international trade regime under the World Trade Organization. Although much of the developing world is in desperate need of debt relief, the US fails to push for a solution. Meanwhile, precious capital continues to flow from the third world to the West.

The US needs to provide leadership in world affairs if it expects other countries to follow. Leadership requires more than the ability to project power in the service of its own security interests. It also requires projecting a sense of purpose and articulating a vision that resonates with the broader community. By taking the lead in the campaign against poverty, the US will be able to demonstrate that it truly is committed to making the world a better and safer place for the world's majority. Today, we live in two worlds. The US needs to create a compelling vision of an integrated world - and demonstrate through action that it will help bring that world about.

J. Brian Atwood is dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and former administrator of USAID. Michael Barnett is the Harold Stassen Chair of International Relations at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

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