For example, last week I forwarded a piece from Harper’s to him about how Americans are more likely than any other society to claim they are Christian, yet of all the rich countries, they are the least peaceable and least generous to the poor. Like other countries, the United States has pledged to give 0.7% of GDP in development aid, but actually gives only 0.15%. That’s fifteen cents a day, per capita. To be sure, lots of other countries have also failed to fulfill their pledges, but the Americans’ shortfall is the most extreme. (This is not just my anti-Americanism showing, since I was born in the United States and retain dual citizenship.)
Ted tried to argue that Americans prefer to make their donations privately. Sorry; that doesn’t explain the gap. If you add in private charities, the American donations come to twenty-one cents per capita — far less than the 70 cents per day that was promised. I remember Ted as a devout Catholic, and I figured this little datum would be a painful thing for him to acknowledge.
Not so. He replied by arguing that development aid doesn’t work, and he closed with this aphorism (which I recall hearing Reagan utter as well): “Don’t just hand out fish. Teach people to fish for themselves.“
Fair enough. That’s an argument I haven’t heard for a long time and I must deal with it honestly. There’s actually such a thing as becoming dependent on others. Last summer at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Nova Scotia, I talked with an African woman who was extremely troubled by seeing it happen in her village. She said the villagers used to be hard-working farmers but now the young men sit around waiting for the UN truck to arrive with food.
Such problems can actually arise. It happens especially in situations of near-famine, such as the one in Niger right now. Many people are going hungry, and only recently has the rest of the world begun to send them food. The delay came from legitimate concern that free food can disrupt the market and destroy the incentive for local farmers to produce. (That’s also why it’s harmful to Third World countries to sell them cheap food from highly productive European and North American farms. “Dumping,” it’s rightly called.) Sometimes in an emergency, it is necessary to provide free food, but that is not an ideal solution to hunger. Instead, money should be spent whenever possible — to use Ted’s metaphor — on “fishing rods and nets” and other elements of infrastructure.
The economist Jeffrey Sachs, who leads the UN’s project on the Millennium Development Goals, points out that in many situations, people cannot get out of poverty by their own efforts. Nor is it fair to blame the African governments for the poverty. Yes, there is always room for improved governance. However, as Sachs notes, some “slow-growing African countries such as Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Malawi have less corruption than the fast-growing Asian countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.”
The Millennium Development Goals can be met, says Sachs, by increasing “investment in people (health, education, nutrition, and family planning), the environment (water and sanitation, soils, forests, and biodiversity), and infrastructure (roads, power, and ports). Poor countries cannot afford these investments on their own, so rich countries must help.“
Amen! Yet I wonder whether my political debate makes any difference. I really want Ted to join in eagerly in the work of saving Planet_Earth. My personal goal is to discover how to touch people’s hearts in ways that make that happen. There has to be a way. But debate may be less convincing than sensitive stories depicting generous, wise people. I’m not sure.