Looking To Aid In All The Wrong Places

News & Politics

September 11 should have driven home a basic lesson for the Bush administration about life in an interconnected world: misery abroad threatens security at home. It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden found warm hospitality in the Taliban's Afghanistan, whose citizens were among the most impoverished and oppressed on earth. If the administration took this lesson seriously, it would dump the rules of realpolitik that have governed U.S. foreign aid policy for 50 years. Instead, it is pouring money into an ally of convenience, Pakistan, which is ultimately likely to expand the ranks of anti-American terrorists abroad.

To enlist Pakistan in the fight against the Taliban, the Bush administration resurrected the Cold War tradition of propping up despotic military regimes in the name of peace and freedom. Its commitment of billions of dollars to Pakistan since September 11 will further entrench the sort of government that has made Pakistan both a development failure and a geopolitical hotspot for decades. Within Pakistan, the aid may ultimately create enough angry young men to make up Al Qaeda's losses in Afghanistan. In South Asia as a whole, the cash infusion may accelerate a dangerous arms race with India.

Historically, the U.S. government has cloaked aid to allies such as Pakistan in the rhetoric of economic development. As a Cold War ally, Pakistan received some $37 billion in grants and loans from the West between 1960 and 1990, adjusting for inflation. And since September 11, the U.S. administration has promised more of the same. It has dropped sanctions imposed after Pakistan detonated a nuclear bomb in 1998, pushed through a $1.3 billion IMF loan for Pakistan, and called for another $2 billion from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The Bush administration is also, ironically, pressing allies to join it in canceling or rescheduling billions of dollars of old (and failed) loans that were granted in past decades in response to similar arm-twisting.

Despite -- even because of -- all this aid, Pakistan is now one of the most indebted, impoverished, militarized nations on earth. While the country's average annual growth rate of 5.5 percent has ranked it 11th in the world over the last 40 years, most Pakistanis today would be grateful for a one-room primary school and a paved road to their village. Some 44 percent of Pakistanis lack access to the sanitary facilities that prevent the spread of many infectious diseases. Nearly one in ten children in Pakistan dies before age five. Just 44 percent of adults can read; the rate among women is an abysmal 29 percent. This educational vacuum opened the way for the madrassas -- religious schools -- where future Al Qaeda recruits were indoctrinated in a rigid Islam.

The causes of Pakistan's poverty are sadly familiar. The government ignored family planning, leading to a population expansion from 50 million in 1960 to nearly 150 million today, for an average growth rate of 2.6 percent a year. Foreign aid meant to pave rural roads went into unneeded city highways -- or pockets of top officials. And the military grew large, goaded by a regional rivalry with India that has three times bubbled into war. The result is a government that, as former World Bank economist William Easterly has observed, "cannot bring off a simple and cheap measles vaccination program, and yet... can build nuclear weapons."

President Bush now faces a moment of truth: should he continue with the realpolitik of his father's generation, throwing even more money at the troubled government of Pakistan? No one can change the decades of sad history that led Pakistan to its present state. But we can learn from that history. The last thing we should be doing in the name of eradicating terrorism is pumping money into corrupt political structures that produce the misery and instability that terrorists feed on.

David Roodman is a Senior Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and author of Still Waiting for the Jubilee: Pragmatic Solutions for the Third World Debt Crisis.

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