Global Crisis

Economic Crisis Sidelines Fate of the World’s Poorest

Posted on Thursday, November 11, 2010

WASHINGTON — Last year, after a personal appeal from President Obama in which he cited his own family’s experiences in Kenya, world leaders gathered at the Italian hill town of L’Aquila pledged $20 billion over three years to help millions of the world’s poorest farmers grow enough food to feed themselves — a “landmark achievement” organizers said in a report.
A year and a half later, barely $1 billion has come in, mostly from the United States. Canada, Spain, South Korea and the Gates Foundation recently promised around $400 million, but many donors have been shifting old aid pledges into the new fund, and counting them twice.
After aid groups examined the numbers of the L’Aquila announcement, they found that only around $6 billion of the $20 billion would be new money, were it to materialize in the next three years.
“It was impossible to nail down solid answers,” said Tom Hart, director of government relations with the ONE campaign, a nonprofit group that seeks increased government money for international aid. “The announcement made it sound like something much larger than what it is.”
As the same leaders gather this week in Seoul for another conference to address the global economy, the fate of the world’s poorest is on the fringes, largely sidelined by the economic crisis. World leaders will mention development in the final communiqués, though probably unsupported by pledges of additional money. Efforts by South Korea to make development issues a big part of the agenda largely failed as big countries hunkered down to wrangle over other issues, like falling interest rates.
The imbalance is striking in part because Mr. Obama, whose election was greeted with euphoria across Africa, has sought to build on aggressive moves by President George W. Bush to fight AIDS and poverty, and more specifically, to help poor farmers reach the point where they can support their families.
His appointment of Rajiv Shah, the American son of Indian immigrants to lead the Agency for International Development, put an ambitious development expert at the head of a beleaguered agency that had, over the years, lost control of American aid money to a host of other government agencies. In September, Mr. Obama announced a new policy that officials said would reallocate development money from countries whose efforts are deemed less promising to those with a greater chance of success; the strategy has largely been greeted with praise within the aid community.
But the administration’s development efforts have been slowed down, not only by the economic crisis but also by bureaucratic headaches of the administration’s own making. The appointment of Dr. Shah did not come until a year after Mr. Obama took office because of delays in vetting candidates for the job.
Once Dr. Shah was finally in place, the process of getting the aid agency fully staffed continued to lag, critics say. Equally slow has been an exhaustive review at the State Department of diplomacy and development, which is meant to breathe new life into development efforts. That report was supposed to come out last January; it is still not out. The administration is about to drop the findings of its review — with attendant proposals for how to spend foreign aid — on Congress just when a Republican takeover of the House is expected to deepen partisan fighting over every dollar that Congress is asked to allocate.
“There’s been some real frustration, probably with the speed with which Usaid has been staffed,” said John Norris, executive director of the sustainable security program at the Center for American Progress, a policy group with close ties to the Obama administration. As for the delay in the development review, Mr. Norris added, “there were a lot of turf battles.”
Administration officials say the turf battles are largely over, although the larger war to get real dollars for Mr. Obama’s proposals — domestically and internationally — lie ahead. Mr. Obama promised $3.5 billion over three years in L’Aquila for the farmer initiative; so far he has received $813 million from Congress in the 2010 fiscal year. For the 2011 fiscal year, the White House asked for $1.6 billion; Congress has yet to act on that request.
White House officials said getting the money approved was only part of the effort. “Just counting the dollars only tells you what a donor is spending,” said Gayle Smith, Mr. Obama’s top development aide. “Our premise is that we’re going to get far better outcomes if we combine resources with doing business differently.”
The farming program seeks to match aid money with rural agriculture needs in the developing world, Dr. Shah said in an interview. For instance, the United States has spent around $15 million in northern Ghana so far to support small farmers, most of whom happen to be women.
By working to improve crop yields, and setting up in-country processing for local raw materials, the program would help these women get more out of their farms. “What we’re doing is literally reaching hundreds of farm households, helping to dramatically increase their production, then selling their excess product in professional markets,” Dr. Shah said. “When I’ve visited these households, you see right away that the first thing they do with increased income is pay for school fees for their kids.”
Properly financed, the American part of the program could move 40 million people out of poverty in five years, administration officials said.
By HELENE COOPER
New York Times


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