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Could This Be the 'Jubilee' Year?

A decade ago at the Earth Summit in Brazil, the U.S. and the rest of the so-called developed world pledged to increase aid levels to at least 0.7 percent of national income – a mark the U.S. is far from.
 
 
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When Jan Egeland, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the not-so-immediate tsunami response by the U.S. "stingy," he was criticized by Bush administration officials and Bush-backers for offering yet another ungrateful "anti-American" diatribe.

But I think most Americans are able to handle the truth, despite the lack of confidence that neocons apparently have in the American people.

So in the pursuit of the ever-elusive truth about U.S. government humanitarianism abroad, consider the context of Egeland's remarks.

Egeland noted that his generosity meter was based, not on total aid, but aid as a percentage of national income. In other words, Egeland (even if unwittingly) was applying the same principle of giving preached by President Bush's favorite political philosopher.

"And Jesus sat by the treasury, and watched how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow who threw in two mites. ... And he called his disciples, and said: 'Truthfully, I say to you, that this poor widow has cast in more than all they that cast into the treasury. For all they did cast in was from their abundance; but she cast in all that she had, even all her living (Mark 12:41-44)." It's the too-whom-much-is-given-much-is-required measuring stick.

Tom Barry, policy director for the International Relations Center, has an excellent analysis of this stuff in a piece he wrote earlier this month called "U.S. Isn't 'Stingy,' It's Strategic." (See www.irc-online.org.)

As Barry points out, a decade ago at the Earth Summit in Brazil, the U.S. and the rest of the so-called developed world pledged to increase aid levels to at least 0.7 percent of national income – a mark the U.S. is far from.

Still, he asks the question neocons take cover behind: "Can the $45 billion U.S. economic and military aid budget of 2004 – roughly three times what the Clinton administration allocated in 1997 – be described as 'stingy'?"

However, as any honest observer would do, Barry shows how the true aid picture is distorted when one uses such a narrow comparative measure, contrasting current U.S. aid levels to the funds allocated during the Clinton administration.

When you compare U.S. aid with the 22 other large aid donors, the U.S. ranks dead last, with a .13 percent of national income commitment. To be fair, Barry acknowledges, only five countries have met or exceeded the promised 0.7 percent pledge set a decade ago: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

"As a percentage of national income, U.S. foreign aid has steadily and dramatically dropped since 1949. Not since the Alliance for Progress years of the Kennedy administration has the economic aid budget exceeded one percent of annual GDP," Barry reports.

He also notes that current aid levels are among the lowest we've seen in the 50-year history of U.S. foreign assistance programs.

"Depending on how you view foreign assistance – total aid or as a percentage of income – Uncle Sam is either generous or a miser. But a narrow focus on dollar amounts and percentages misses the bigger picture of the changes in U.S. economic aid in the past several years. What cannot be debated is that U.S. economic aid is increasingly strategic."

The January 2004 USAID commission report, which was written in part by neocons from the Hudson and Hoover think tanks, give two criteria for aid: "relevance to U.S. national security" and "greater aid effectiveness," which means unconditional acceptance of U.S. foreign policy objectives, particularly as it relates to exports and technical assistance.

If the U.S. wants to really help tsunami survivors, we could take the international debt-relief effort one step further and not make it time-limited. We could simply call on the world's creditor nations to unconditionally cancel the debt of poor nations.

By the way, you know where the debt-relief idea got its steam? Jubilee for Debt campaign supporters deluged UK Chancellor Gordon Brown with letters, asking him to put debt-relief on the G7 finance minister's table.

Make your compassion really count. Write to your congressman in support of full debt relief. After all, we have a compassionate conservative in office who believes in the Bible – a Bible that happens to call for just such a measure in the year of Jubilee.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.