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At Your Office

Generosity Shrinking in an Age of Prosperity

Government soldiers guard Hutu refugees in Kabezi camp
The U.N. estimates $278 million is needed to care for the nearly 4 million people in Central Africa who are crowded into refugee camps, such as this Kabezi camp in Burundi. (Reuters)


By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 1999; Page A1

First of Two Parts

While America has enjoyed one of its most prosperous decades ever in the 1990s, it also has set a record for stinginess. For as long as people have kept track, never has the United States given a smaller share of its money to the world's poorest.

Although the size of its economy makes America a major foreign aid donor and Americans as individuals are generous givers to domestic and foreign emergencies the country is the most parsimonious in the world when its charity is measured as a fraction of available riches. In 1997, the U.S. government spent about $7 billion on traditional, nonmilitary foreign aid, or less than one-tenth of one percent of the $8.1 trillion gross national product. That was the lowest percentage of any donor country and less than half the proportion that America spent just 10 years earlier.

But the United States is far from the only country giving less; declining generosity has become a worldwide trend. Overall international foreign assistance has fallen sharply since the end of the Cold War, dropping 21 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between 1992 and 1997.

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The reasons for the decline are not hard to find. Critics have long said that foreign assistance was wasted by bloated aid agencies pouring money into the pockets of corrupt Third World governments. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Western powers no longer felt the need to purchase the Cold War loyalty of such governments. With a less threatening world beyond their borders, donor nations came under pressure to attend to problems at home.

"All they want is to give the taxpayers' money away to foreign countries and be damned what happens at home," Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said in a floor speech this month as Congress slashed President Clinton's foreign aid budget request.

The shrinking amount of aid has imposed a rigid new calculus on where the assistance goes. Major natural disasters and strategically important trouble-spots Turkish earthquakes, Balkan wars and Middle East peace agreements have continued to attract international largess, particularly when television cameras are on hand to broadcast the need and document the good deeds.

The principal loser in this equation has been Africa, where the impact of declining funds and shifting priorities is felt in increasingly scarce resources to combat hunger, homelessness and disease.

The United Nations aid agencies, which depend on voluntary contributions from member nations, are the primary dispensers of assistance to Africa. This year, donors have provided less than three-fifths of the $800 million U.N. request for sub-Saharan Africa emergencies. The U.N. target slightly more than half of Fairfax County's annual school budget had already been reduced by nearly a third from last year after donors complained it was too high.

In September, the U.N.'s World Food Program announced it would curtail its feeding program for nearly 2 million refugees in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea after receiving less than 20 percent of requested funding. An emergency appeal during the summer to feed and shelter at least 600,000 Angolans who had been displaced in that country's longstanding civil war a number nearly equal to Kosovo's refugees of last spring brought minimal initial response and predictions of mass starvation.

In Africa's Great Lakes region of Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda, where overlapping wars have been raging for years, nearly 4 million people are crowded into refugee camps or hiding in the hills far from roads and towns. Nearly all farmers or herders, they are without land and livestock, and in many cases without access to health services or other humanitarian assistance. This year, the United Nations estimated it would need $278 million to take care of them. By late October, only 45 percent of that amount had been donated.

Africa also has been largely bypassed by the mushrooming flows of private investment funds that have offset the decline in foreign aid in other regions, such as East Asia and Latin America, where investors have seen better potential returns.

Africa's problems seem an old story, with disasters declared with dulling regularity, victims located far from anyone's strategic ken or camera range, savage wars and governments that rob their own people. Because things seem to have gotten worse, rather than better, critics of foreign aid tend to view money sent to Africa as wasted on a lost cause.

But to the proponents and practitioners of foreign aid, this depressing logic condemns the world's most needy to falling ever further behind precisely because they have been unable to get ahead.

It is, said Mark Malloch Brown, director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), "a very Darwinian situation."

Demoralizing Decade

The 1990s have been a demoralizing decade for the professional aid community those in government, multinational and private agencies who determine where funds are needed and how they should be spent, lobby donors to come up with the money and deliver the aid to the field.

Not only was overall funding down, but the largest aid undertakings were notorious failures. In Somalia, a combined military-humanitarian intervention collapsed in lethal firefights and recrimination. In Bosnia, programs to feed the victims of atrocities became a grotesque smoke screen to conceal the lack of political will to stop the killings. In the case of Rwanda, the international community ended up feeding and supplying the very perpetrators of genocide.

The aid agencies got much of the blame. If they couldn't succeed in places like Somalia and Rwanda, where the money was flowing freely, why give them more? After Rwanda, said Francisco Hochschild, special assistant to U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator Sergio Vieira de Mello, "budgets started shrinking."

But then, Hochschild said, "Kosovo turned up to save everybody."

If the selection of those deserving of foreign assistance is Darwinian, then the people of Kosovo are among the world's fittest. The survival and safe return of 730,000 Kosovo Albanians was "one of the most spectacular reverse population movements in contemporary history," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said last summer.

But in fundamental ways, Kosovo confirmed the worst fears of aid officials, that they have become active participants in a process that concentrates assistance on the most strategically located and widely televised crises, often at the expense of the most needy.

The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on Kosovo refugees and the crush of aid agencies eager to spend it "was almost an obscenity," said Randolph Kent, who worked with the United Nations in the Balkans until last summer, when he became the coordinator of U.N. aid programs for Somalia. Some aid workers called the Kosovo Albanians "the Pampers refugees" in an exaggerated reference to material comforts unavailable to Africans.

The need in Kosovo was undeniably large and urgent. But many aid officials acknowledged that a large part of their eagerness came from "the CNN effect" the symbiotic relationship among donor governments, foreign aid agencies and television. The aid agencies know they are in a business that must justify its existence in ways that those supplying the money can see and approve. Television coverage both reflects and promotes high-level donor interest, so aid agencies' activities tend to follow the cameras.

CARE USA, one of the world's largest and most successful nongovernmental aid organizations, receives both private funding and contracts from government agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). With the rush of aid agencies to Kosovo, senior CARE officials discussed taking a pass lest they undermine their other long-established development programs in Latin America, South Asia and Africa.

The idea was quickly discarded, however. CARE concluded it must have a presence in Kosovo, or be downgraded in the eyes of donors watching to see their contributions in action, and deciding where to put their money in the future.

"Donors both private and government expected us to be there," said CARE USA President Peter Bell. President Clinton held a meeting with the leading agencies to emphasize his own enthusiasm for aid to Kosovo.

"The response to Kosovo would have happened without CARE," said a dismayed CARE official. "But in a place like Sudan, where the need is desperate, it wouldn't happen without us." As with many other agencies, CARE workers from Peru, Bangladesh and Kenya, among other places, were pulled off assignments and sent to Kosovo. In Tanzania, British government funding for an approved CARE development program was suddenly unavailable, the official said.

"Did we need to be in Kosovo?" asked Mario Ochoa, executive vice president of the Maryland-based Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which operates relief projects out of its own donations and under contract with donor governments. "We asked ourselves that question" and answered affirmatively.

The public, he said, finds it difficult to distinguish among the seemingly endless crises in Africa, or to sustain interest in the absence of television coverage. Like the government and multinational aid agencies, private organizations such as ADRA have little difficulty funding programs for well-publicized emergencies. But the public's response to appeals for Africa, Ochoa said, is "not going very well. . . . If I were to go now and make an emergency appeal for, say, Rwanda, for $500,000 for food, I'd probably get about seventy or eighty thousand" in contributions.

"What Kosovo highlighted" for both government and private donors, said the U.N.'s Hochschild, "was that some . . . were happy to [pay to] set up camps at huge expense, with soldiers, in front of the TV cameras. That's what they're not willing to do in Angola and in Central Africa," where the media rarely ventures.

But donors who contributed heavily for Kosovo now have less left for other regions. "Kosovo doesn't mean we're going to get less for Africa" this year, said Thomas H. Fox, AID's assistant administrator for policy. "But it might prevent our being able to make a successful case for more" in the future.

"What you're looking at is not a bottomless pot of gold, but a very limited amount of money available throughout the world for crisis. If it happens to be somewhere in Europe, everybody else is out of luck," said Neville Pradham, a Geneva-based appeals coordinator for ACT, the private emergency aid agency supported by Protestant churches worldwide. The response of churches and their parishioners to ACT appeals for Africa, he said, has been disappointing.

Many Africans believe the disparity in aid has deeper roots than the strategic imperatives of donor nations and the news judgment of the media.

During a U.N. Security Council meeting with more than a dozen representatives of African countries in September, speaker after African speaker implied or charged outright that racism played a major role in the level of aid to the continent and the decreased willingness of the West to become involved in helping Africa settle its conflicts.

A citizen of Congo was no less deserving than someone from Kosovo or East Timor, said Andre Mwamba Kapanga, the representative of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. "The color of his skin," he said, "does not make him a substandard being."

Nigerian representative Ibrahim Gambari called on the Security Council to compare the world's response to the Kosovo crisis where he said the international community spent $1.50 per day per refugee to the response to conflicts in Sierra Leone and Rwanda, where he said the daily expenditure per refugee was 11 cents.

Clinton Plugs Aid

In a speech in August to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Clinton included a brief plug for increased U.S. foreign aid to Africa.

"These efforts don't make a lot of headlines. I'll bet most of you don't know much about them," Clinton told the veterans. "That's good, because the point is to avoid headlines . . . about famine and refugee crisis and genocide, and to replace them, instead, with stories of partnership and shared prosperity. These are the stories we can write now . . . if Congress will invest only a tiny portion of what we spend on defense on avoiding war in the first place."

Clinton's point was one that aid scholars and practitioners make repeatedly that giving foreign aid now is cheaper, both in moral and monetary terms, than what might be necessary if Africa's "basket cases" are allowed to fester. But it is an argument that makes little headway in Congress, where there is widespread doubt about whether foreign aid really works.

"The United Nations has declared that 70 countries aid recipients all are now poorer than they were in 1980," responded aid critic Doug Bandow of the libertarian Cato Institute. "An incredible 43 were worse off than in 1970. Chaos, slaughter, poverty and ruin stalked Third World states, irrespective of how much foreign assistance they received." Except for Haiti, all of the 13 foreign aid failures he cited Somalia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, Chad, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Zaire, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Sudan were in sub-Saharan Africa.

AID and U.N. officials reply that, with the exception of Haiti and Somalia, both scenes of expensive military interventions as well as aid, the amount of assistance received by these countries pales beside that bestowed elsewhere to Egypt, Israel, India, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others now considered aid success stories. And according to AID statistics, it is thanks in large part to foreign aid that world literacy rose by nearly 50 percent in the last third of this century, infant mortality was halved, life expectancy tripled and 71 more nations have become "free or partly free."

But the skepticism of Bandow and others is strengthened by severely troubled situations like the one in Central Africa. At least two, and sometimes three, wars are simultaneously being fought in the region, ethnic strife has led to the slaughter of thousands of people including numerous aid workers, and the parties seem impervious to pleas to stop.

Even where there is peace in Africa, corruption often siphons off both domestic and foreign resources at staggering levels. According to the World Bank, nearly 40 percent of Africa's aggregate wealth has fled to foreign bank accounts. Of the 20 countries most highly indebted to the U.S. government, 15 are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In an appeal for funds this fall, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan acknowledged that there sometimes seems little promise that aid to Africa will accomplish much. "There are, in short, places where the widely held view of Africa as a region in perpetual crisis is not just an image, but an all-too-grim and painful reality," he said.

"But there are also places, more than is commonly recognized, where we are witnessing dramatic changes for the better," he added. While problems persist in Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere, he said, the international community must "seize this moment" to engage with those parts of a society prepared to turn a corner.

Donors give up too easily on Africa, said Hochschild. "I can see the despair, the sense of futility in any of these cases," he said. "But in other parts of the world, where [people] are better informed, like the Middle East, there is a recognition that peace can be difficult, that it needs a long and very consistent engagement."

Agencies Regroup

As funding continues to fall, alarmed aid organizations have slimmed down their staffs and their ambitions. They have also begun to rethink the foreign aid business in search of innovative ways to solicit money and more intelligent ways to spend it.

"For me, the issue is do you . . . go back and shake the tin cup, or try to develop a new strategy, new sources of funding, a new rationale for funding and new services," said the UNDP's Brown. "The development community has had to scramble to develop a corporate discipline and a culture that were absent during the Cold War years when money was shoveled in."

Among Brown's innovations is NetAid, an effort to "remake the giving model" by building a new foreign aid constituency, especially among young people and women. A new Web site launched last month uses snappy language and stories of Third Worlders in need. Initial returns since the October launch have been disappointing, however.

"We've got to take an extra big step if we're going to save this business," said Brown.

Others have advocated small steps in the field, away from the massive development projects of the past and direct support for inept governments and toward micro-loans, health projects administered by local villagers and education programs for small business entrepreneurs.

AID, the U.S. government development agency, is looking for ways to take advantage of new data indicating that Americans are far more supportive of foreign aid than the aid-averse Congress thinks they are, but are wildly misinformed about how much the government spends. Although the figure is currently less than one percent of GNP, most respondents in opinion polls guess it is about 15 percent, and suggest 5 percent would be about right.

Aid leaders such as Brown, World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn and James H. Michel, the outgoing chair of the OECD's development committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, have all called on donor nations to help look for new strategies to reverse the trends and reject what Wolfensohn, too, has called the "Darwinian theory of development whereby we discard the unfit by the wayside."

The donor governments have said they share the concern, and have pledged to do something about it. Pressure has mounted within the G-7 group of the world's leading industrialized nations for Third World debt forgiveness. Britain, Canada and Germany have made substantive moves in that direction, although Clinton's proposal to do the same in next year's budget was rejected by Congress.

Several years ago, the OECD, which groups 21 of the world's richest countries, set a goal of cutting in half the world's poverty by 2015. To back up the pledge, members agreed in 1996 to raise their individual annual aid expenditures to at least seven-tenths of one percent of GNP a commitment later made by the G-7 as well.

By last year, however, the same four countries that consistently score at the top of the proportional generosity scale Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden remained the only ones to meet the OECD individual funding target. Fifteen of the 21 OECD donors, including all G-7 members but France, weren't even halfway there. Five gave less than the year before.

NEXT: The plight of Somaliland

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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