PRINCETON – As I tour the U.S. promoting my new book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty , I am often asked if this isn’t the wrong time to call on affluent people to increase their effort to end poverty in other countries. I reply emphatically that it is not. There is no doubt that the world economy is in trouble. But if governments or individuals use this as an excuse to reduce assistance to the world’s poorest people, they would only multiply the seriousness of the problem for the world as a whole.
The financial crisis has been more damaging for the poor than it has been for the rich. Without in any way minimizing the economic and psychological blow that people experience when they lose their jobs, the unemployed in affluent countries still have a safety net, in the form of social security payments, and usually free health care and free education for their children. They also have sanitation and safe drinking water.
The poor in developing countries have none of these benefits, which proves fatal for an estimated 18 million of them each year. That’s a higher annual death toll than during World War II, and it’s easier to prevent.
Of those who die from avoidable, poverty-related causes, nearly ten million, according to UNICEF, are children under five. They die from diseases like measles, diarrhea, and malaria that are easy and inexpensive to treat or prevent.
We may feel the pain of falling back from a level of affluence to which we have grown accustomed, but most people in developed countries are still, by historical standards, extraordinarily well off. Have you, in the past week, bought a bottle of water, a beer, or a coffee when tap water was available at no cost? If you did, that’s a luxury that the world’s poorest billion people can’t afford, because they have to live for an entire day on what you spent on just one of those drinks.
One reason that we can afford to increase the amount of aid we give is that the amount we are giving now is insignificant in comparison to what we spend on other things. The United States government, for example, spends about $22 billion on foreign aid, while Americans privately donate perhaps another $10 billion.
Compared to the $787 billion stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama last month, that $32 billion is trivial. It’s also less than $0.25 for every $100 that Americans earn. Of course, some nations do better: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, and Luxembourg all exceed the United Nations target of allocating the equivalent of 0.7% of gross national income in foreign aid. But even $0.70 for every $100 is still not a lot with which to confront one of the great moral problems of our age.
If extreme poverty is allowed to increase, it will give rise to new problems, including new diseases that will spread from countries that cannot provide adequate health care to those that can. Poverty will lead to more migrants seeking to move, whether legally or not, to rich nations. When there is eventually an economic recovery, the global economy will be smaller than it would be if all the world’s people could take part in it.
Nor is the global financial crisis a justification for the world’s leaders failing to keep their word. Nearly nine years ago, at the Millennium Development Summit in New York, the leaders of 180 countries, including all the major affluent nations, promised that by 2015 they would together achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
These goals include halving the proportion of the world’s people living in poverty and ensuring that children everywhere receive a full primary education. Since that meeting in 2000, the commitments made by most nations have fallen short of what is required, and 2015 is now only six years away.
If we cut back on aid, we will fail to keep our promise, and poorer countries will learn, once again, that rich countries’ actions fall short of their inspiring rhetoric about reducing world poverty. That is not a good basis for future cooperation between rich and poor countries on issues such as climate change.
Finally, if anything good comes out of this global financial crisis, it will be a reassessment of our basic values and priorities. We need to recognize that what really matters isn’t buying more and more consumer goods, but family, friends, and knowing that we are doing something worthwhile with our lives. Helping to reduce the appalling consequences of world poverty should be part of that reassessment.