Under fire for giving too little too late to the world's poor, US President George W. Bush said on Friday he would jump-start a multibillion dollar aid program for countries that combat corruption and open their markets as part of Washington's "answer to terror."
Addressing a UN development conference in Mexico's third-largest city, Bush said funding under the program could begin to flow to qualified nations over the next 12 months. When the three-year, US$10 billion program was first unveiled last week, Bush said countries would have to wait until 2004.
Bush also made an appeal to the world's rich nations to tear down barriers to trade, calling it the best way to help developing nations help themselves. He held the US up as a model despite accusations by major trading partners that some of Washington's policies were protectionist.
"We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." Bush said. "We will challenge the poverty and hopelessness and lack of education and failed governments that too often allow conditions that terrorists can seize and try to turn to their advantage," he added.
Despite Bush's pledge to speed up the delivery of aid, some development advocates remained critical. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs called it "a pittance." ActionAid warned that the economic reforms demanded by Washington would be "so subjective they could be used for political purposes."
A key objective of Bush's trip was to refocus US attention, diverted by the Sept. 11 attacks, on Latin America. Ahead of the November elections for control of Congress, Bush has been searching for ways to expand the Republican Party's base with the fastest-growing voting bloc in the US -- the Hispanic community.
Bush also hoped to foster international goodwill by promoting his plan to boost aid to poor countries. Despite the big increase in assistance announced by Bush, the US will still lag well behind the EU and Japan in the aid donor stakes.
Bush's grant program would, subject to congressional approval, provide US$10 billion in aid from 2004 to 2006 -- a 50 percent increase over current levels. In the 2007 budget and beyond, Washington would provide an extra US$5 billion annually to impoverished nations that "govern justly, invest in their people and encourage economic freedom," Bush said.
Bush directed Secretary of State Colin Powell and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill to draw up "clear and concrete objective" criteria for the grants, and said he would work with Congress to make some resources available over the next 12 months.
The conference also gave Bush a platform to press for lending reforms at the World Bank and other international agencies. "Pouring money into a failed status quo does little to help the poor and can actually delay the progress of reform. We must accept a higher, more difficult, more promising call," he said.