September 13, 2005
Copyright The New York Times
The biggest gathering of leaders in history unfolds this week at the United Nations, as they preen and boast about how much they’re helping the world’s poor. In short, it may be the greatest assembly in history – of hypocrites.
The fact is that with just a few exceptions, the presidents and prime ministers coming to the U.N. summit are doing a disgraceful job in helping the poor. That’s one reason the world’s richest 500 individuals have the same income as the world’s poorest 416 million people.
We Americans set a dreadful example as hosts to the summit. President Bush has been trying to wriggle away from his 2002 endorsement of the principle that rich countries should try to provide 70 cents in official development assistance for every $100 in national income. (Mr. Bush has sharply increased foreign aid from the Clinton years, but it still stood at only 16 cents in 2004 for each $100 of national income.)
The Bush administration also tried to change summit documents to downplay references to the millennium development goals of overcoming poverty. Fortunately, the Bush administration backed off and now grudgingly joins the international consensus against infant mortality.
It’s common to hear abroad scathing criticisms of U.S. stinginess, much of it deserved. But Japan is also a cheapskate, giving only a hair more than the U.S., and Italy gives even less.
The new Human Development Report 2005, recently issued by the U.N. Development Program, is blessedly undiplomatic in its willingness to point figures – at just about everybody. It notes that the U.S. and other rich countries seem unwilling to provide a total of $7 billion annually for the next decade to provide 2.6 billion people with access to clean drinking water. That investment would save 4,000 lives a day, and the cost is less than Europeans spend on perfume – or than Americans spend on cosmetic surgery.
Meanwhile, the report adds, AIDS kills three million people a year and devastates countries like nothing since the Black Death in the 14th century. Yet annual world spending to fight AIDS amounts to three days of military expenditures.
This U.N. summit is meant to review the millennium development goals, such as cutting child deaths around the world by two-thirds by 2015. All the goals, adopted with great fanfare five years ago, are feasible, and some countries – from Bangladesh to Indonesia, Brazil to Mongolia – are on track to meet them. Hats off to them. But most of the world appears likely to miss the goals.
Two countries that should be the leaders of the developing world, China and India, are both off track and should be ashamed of their records. In India, among children 1 to 5, girls are 50 percent more likely to die than boys, meaning that each year 130,000 Indian girls are discriminated to death.
Bangladesh has now overtaken India in improving child mortality, and Vietnam has overtaken China. If India had matched Bangladesh’s rate of reduction in child mortality over the last decade, according to the U.N.D.P., it would have saved 732,000 children’s lives this year.
Likewise, China has largely ignored its poor interior, so it still loses 730,000 children each year. China has also taken diplomatic positions that hurt the world’s most vulnerable populations, by supporting Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and by implicitly endorsing Sudan’s genocide just as it once endorsed Pol Pot’s.
And African leaders? Perhaps this is naïve, but it strikes me as racist for them to have complained about brutal white rule in South Africa or Zimbabwe while excusing black rule that is even more brutal.
Readers often ask if I find it depressing to visit African slums or mud-brick villages. On the contrary, it’s exhilarating to see how little it takes to make a difference. Ancient scourges like river blindness and leprosy are being controlled, and a clever initiative by Bill Gates and others to promote vaccinations (the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunization) saved more than one million lives just between 2001 and 2004.
That makes it maddening to see leaders posturing for the cameras at the U.N. while, as the U.N.D.P. report notes, “the promise to the world’s poor is being broken.” The report adds that the gap between the current trendline on child mortality and the one the leaders committed themselves to amounts to 41 million children dying before their fifth birthday over the next decade.
Rather than toasting themselves, these leaders should apologize for this continuing holocaust.