Saturday, June 05, 2004

"Don't Know, Should Care"

Such is the title of a piece by Jeffrey Sachs in today's NYTimes. With a broad brush, he blasts the US government's approach (not just Bush)to the world's poor, using USAID as a convenient yet deserved whipping boy. Here are the highlights:

...In the world's poorest regions, from the Andes to Central Asia, the government seems to operate almost blindly, facing challenges that it simply does not understand and therefore can't resolve.

This isn't a problem that started in this Bush administration, though the combination of ignorance and arrogance in President Bush's foreign policy has proved especially lethal. Since the early 1980's, American development programs have been gutted, to the point that there is little institutional understanding about societies seething because of mass unemployment, rapid population growth, pervasive disease and chronic hunger.

...When I went to key Bush administration officials in 2001 to urge stepping up the battle against the AIDS pandemic, my counterparts were lawyers, holdovers from the cold war and political operatives. What was lacking was professional expertise, which was bottled up at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, neither of which had been given the lead in setting AIDS policy. Nor was USAID any better. Its budget and expertise had been so sapped by 2001 that there were few independent thinkers left, and even fewer who knew the details of the AIDS catastrophe in Africa.

Even though there is genuine interest in the Bush administration for battling AIDS, too much politics and too little professionalism resulted in years of delay in starting President Bush's global AIDS initiative, and millions died as a result. That disheartening loss of time and opportunity has been matched in other circumstances.

...Changing all of this will require much more than recognizing the errors of the Iraq war. A good starting point would be to rebuild the USAID into a pre-eminent agency for understanding and resolving human catastrophes and security threats arising from extreme poverty. This agency requires a professional, nonpoliticized leadership and staff; a new mandate to study a world economy of startling inequalities; increased financial resources to help fragile and impoverished countries before they fall into chaos; and a rank as a cabinet-level department, so that expertise gets a hearing at the centers of power.

But our efforts will need to go beyond one agency. We must have leaders who recognize that the problems of the poor aren't trifles to leave to do-gooders, but are vital strategic issues. For the first time in decades, we must strive to understand problems — tropical disease, malnutrition and the like — that are unfamiliar to us but are urgent concerns of billions of people abroad. In the case of a superpower, ignorance is not bliss; it is a threat to Americans and to humanity.

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