The paradox of our time is the great power of the world's richest countries to do good, but their seeming compulsion to miss every opportunity to do so.
The US stands as the supreme example of this: a country that devotes US$450 billion per year to military spending allocates only US$12 billion per year to development assistance for poor countries. It can bomb Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, but seems ill-equipped to help these places develop.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
Europe is little better, paralyzed as it is by internal divisions and budget deficits. This week's G8 summit in Evian, France is a chance to make a fresh start.
For the one billion people represented at the G8 Summit, life is extremely good in comparison with the rest of the planet, with average incomes at US$25,000 per person or more and life expectancy around 80 years.
For about 3 billion people in the world today, including China, much of India, and most of East Asia, economic development is proceeding reasonably well, even if it displays a lot of ups and downs (most recently, the shock of the SARS epidemic). Positive trends are also seen in Brazil and Mexico.
But for the world's remaining 2 billion people, life remains desperate. For roughly 1 billion people, bare survival is nothing short of precarious. Millions die each year because they lack access to medicines, food, safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Their life expectancy is often less than 50 years and is falling in many places.
The G8 could end the suffering of the world's poorest billion people if it adopted realistic measures to solve their problems. They fail to do so not only because they are greedy, but also because they are scared. They think that global poverty is inevitable and too expensive to solve. But they can solve the problems of the world's poorest -- with relatively little effort and with no noticeable negative impact on their own standard of living.
The biggest problem areas are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, the Andean region and Central Asia. Other pockets of extreme poverty, in China and India, are on the path of amelioration due to these two giants' rapid economic growth. But the problems in sub-Saharan Africa, the Andes, and Central Asia are not solving themselves. These regions are trapped in poverty. The worst situation, by far, is in Africa.
The US government believes that these countries have only themselves to blame for their poverty. But this is the ignorant boasting of a rich country that fails to comprehend the situation on the ground.
Africa is trapped in poverty for deep-seated reasons. It suffers from endemic malaria, which is like a SARS pandemic that lasts for centuries, not for a few months. It suffers from a climate prone to massive droughts and from soils depleted of nutrients. It suffers from the fact that most of its population lives in the rural interior, without paved roads to reach ports and facilitate access to international trade.
Aside from a few countries in West Africa, it suffers from a serious shortage of energy resources, whether coal or oil or hydroelectric power. The US never had to grapple with any one of these problems in the severity that they grip Africa.
The ultimate irony is that all of these deep problems are amenable to solutions, albeit solutions that require money. That is where the G8 should come in.
All that is required is for the G8 leaders to commit, at Evian, to follow through on their previous promises, which for years have remained unfulfilled. During the past three years, the world's leaders have promised concrete action to cut global poverty by one half by the year 2015, in a series of commitments known as the Millennium Development Goals.
But only baby steps have followed. The US increased foreign aid by perhaps US$4 billion a year at the same time that it increased military spending by US$150 billion annually and cut taxes by trillions of dollars. Clearly, the US has the means to do vastly more to help the world's poor, if only it had the foresight.
Specifically, the G8 leaders should commit to providing adequate financing for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; to raise food productivity in Africa through a new Green Revolution; to ensure that all poor children have the opportunity to go to school; and to ensure that poor people everywhere have access to clean drinking water and sanitation. The total cost of this agenda, remarkably, would be much less than 1 percent of the annual income of rich countries.
For the first time in history, the rich are so rich and the poor so poor, that a tiny effort by the rich could end massive suffering. The Evian Summit will clarify whether greed, ignorance, and the bombast of war have closed the eyes of the US entirely, and whether Europe and Japan will look inward rather than outward.
Jeffrey Sachs is professor of economics and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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