Wednesday, July 06, 2005

# Posted 3:53 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

SO TELL ME AGAIN WHY GIVING AID TO CORRUPT DICTATORSHIPS IS A GOOD IDEA: I'm against global poverty. Who isn't? But those who demand that Western governments increase their aid programs by billions of dollars per year have to demonstrate that throwing money at the problem really is the right answer. As Sebastian Mallaby points out, some pretty smart people think that aid has negligible or even negative effects on developing economies.

One way around such demands is to have celebrities pull at our collective heartstrings until we feel guilty enough to demand that our governments give more. OxBlog may not be susceptible to that sort of emotional manipulation, but we here do recognize that it can be quite effective.

Another way around such objections -- one that is preferred by smart liberal policymakers -- is to argue that fighting poverty is integral to our national security. In other words, we shouldn't care about poverty because we are good people; we should care about poverty because we are selfish.

This argument has quite a long pedigree. To a certain extent, it provided the basic rationale for the Marshall Plan. (Which worked.) Unquestionably, it represented the foundation of the Kennedy administration's strategy for fighting Communism in the developing world. (Which didn't.)

And now, once again, top-flight thinkers in the Democratic Party such as Susan Rice have begun to apply this argument to the war on terror. And yet I remain unconvinced. Rice argues in the WaPo that
For a rare moment, global poverty reduction is near the top of the international agenda. It's hip. It's moral. And it's smart policy...

Clearly, the most important ingredients for reducing poverty are improved economic policies and responsible governance in developing countries. But far greater support from rich countries is essential.
Which is sort of like saying that the most important way to stop organized crime is to persuade mobsters that their behavior is unethical, but that it is also essential to finance job training programs for Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone.

Sure, job training programs are a good idea. But they are a total waste of money as long as the mobsters prefer the status quo. In addition to spicing up this post with colorful reference to pop culture, this analogy has a point: Most of the governments who would benefit from increased Western aid bear at least as much resemblance to sophisticated protection rackets as they do to what Europeans or North Americans might describe as a government.

Anyhow, Rice goes on to observe that:
The president also claims to have "tripled" aid to Africa over the past four years; in fact, total U.S. assistance to Africa has not even doubled. It has increased 56 percent in real dollars from fiscal 2000 to 2004, the last completed fiscal year. More than half of that increase is emergency food aid -- not assistance that alleviates poverty.
Bush should be more precise about what he says, but it strikes me as sort of odd that Rice is complaining about a conservative Republican president who hasn't increased foreign aid as much as she would hope. After all, Rice was assistant secretary of state for Africa during Clinton's second term. If foreign aid is such a good idea, why didn't the uber-intelligent Clinton do more about it during his eight years in office?

Of course, Clinton's indolence doesn't bear directly on the merit of Rice's main argument, which is that
Numerous studies show that poverty fuels conflict...When per capita income reaches $1,000, the risk drops dramatically, and at $5,000 it is less than 1 percent...

Al Qaeda established training camps in conflict-ridden Afghanistan, purchased diamonds from Sierra Leone, raised recruits in Chechnya and targeted American soldiers in Somalia (and now Iraq).
My first question is, does poverty fuel conflict, or does conflict fuel poverty? To a certain extent, the answer is probably both. But Rice doesn't even acknowledge that conflict-prone societies may just burn their aid on the battlefied.

Second of all, and more importantly, the second half of Rice's argument breaks down into the old "root causes" cliche. It's not as if all poor countries are likely to produce terrorists. Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa seem to produce very few of them, while the Middle East -- including the rich oil nations -- have produced quite a few. And of course, the terrorists themselves seem to come from wealthy and educated backgrounds.

So, would Rice advocate that we only direct our aid toward countries likely to produce terrorists (since poverty is a contributing cause even in the Middle East)? Or would that kind of strict emphasis on national security be too much for her?

When it comes to fighting poverty, I tend to approach the issue the same way as Anne Applebaum:
Each European cow costs taxpayers $2.20 a day, while half the world's population lives on less than $2 a day. Withdraw the subsidies for the cows, and Africans might even be able to make competitive cheese.
Eliminating subsidies is a win-win proposition, and it doesn't depend on the good will of corrupt dictatorships with a very poor record of distributing donated Western largesse.
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