A blueprint to fight poverty around the world

A push by developed nations could cut poverty in half with in a generation, the UN says amid signs of progress.

Four years ago Tanzania eliminated school fees and increased its education budget 130 percent. The result: Enrollment in primary schools jumped 50 percent. Girls are equal in number to boys in Tanzanian classrooms.

Fourteen years ago Vietnam was struck by a malaria epidemic. The government fought back, distributing insecticide-treated bed nets for free, among other things. Malaria fatalities were virtually eliminated.

As these examples show, the developing world is not an unrelieved landscape of despair. When high-level government vision and support are accompanied by a significant increase in funds - often aid from richer countries - problems of poverty can be overcome, according to a detailed new UN report.

Thus a redoubled effort on the part of the developed world, including substantial increases in funding, could halve world poverty in a generation, according to the report of the United Nations Millennium Project. If nothing else, this advocacy of a sort of shock therapy for the worst-off raises anew an old debate: How much help does foreign aid really provide?

"Money is absolutely crucial ... but there also needs to be structural change on the part of some [recipient] governments," says John Hammock, a humanitarian aid expert at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The UN Millennium Project derives its name from the goals to alleviate hunger, disease, poverty, and misery adopted by world leaders at a 2000 summit.

Meeting these goals would both fulfill a moral obligation, and serve the developed world's self-interest, many leaders said at the time. For instance, in 2002 President Bush said, "... Persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair. And when governments fail to meet the most basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens for terror."

Research even suggests that there may be a relationship between economic shock and fighting in unstable nations.

"On average, a negative economic growth shock of 5 percentage points increases civil-war risks by about 50 percent," according to the Millennium Project.

By some measures, the world has made progress in this battle in recent years. Average overall income went up by 22 percent between 1990 and 2002. That translates into an estimated 130 million fewer people in extreme poverty.

But these overall numbers mask the fact that some nations are doing better, while others fall behind - sub-Sahara African remains mired in poverty, for instance. And there are pockets of persistent problems in nations where the outlook is relatively bright. Southern Mexico, far from US markets, doesn't share the relative prosperity of the country's north.

And what progress there is can come grindingly slow. At current rates, the halving of world poverty will occur, not in the Millennium Project goal of 2015, but in 2130, noted Gordon Brown, British chancellor of the exchequer, in a recent speech at the Brookings Institution here. "We can see that our destination risks becoming out of reach, receding into the distance," he said.

Enter the Millennium Project report, directed by Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Columbia University economist associated with the theory that quick, massive change can shock dormant economies into life.

Rise in money required

Halving world poverty by 2015 would require that aid from developed nations be doubled, to an amount equal to about half of 1 percent of national incomes, according to the report. A few developed nations, such as Sweden and Norway, have reached that level. In the United States, aid levels are equal to about 15 hundredths of one percent. US officials argue that the overall level of US aid is the highest in the world, and that the US provides many other kinds of assistance which aren't counted as official aid.

Also a role for poor nations

But not all experts agree that shoveling money at the problem will halve poverty. Responsibility for development, some say, rests with the countries themselves.

Increasing trade and private investment would have a greater effect on poor nations than increasing aid, said Kim R. Holmes, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, last year.

"When countries demonstrate they have the will to open markets; reduce corruption, regulation, and taxes; and invest in their people wisely, foreign aid can help. Otherwise it is of little help," said Dr. Holmes.

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