Oakland Tribune
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April 4, 2002

Foreign aid fights diseases

by Chris Gilbert

NOW that President Bush has proposed increasing foreign aid, it's time to decide how the money should be spent.This increase, the first in a decade, came in spite of the apparent apathy of the American public and of opposition within the president's own administration. And it was probably prompted not by idealism, but by a political calculation to avoid embarrassment at the recently concluded United Nations aid summit in Monterrey, Mexico. The president did not want to come to the conference table empty-handed.

In spite of all this, increasing foreign aid is the right thing to do and here's why:

Foreign aid is misunderstood by many Americans. In a recent survey of how much Americans thought the United States spends on foreign aid, the median response was 20 percent of the budget -- more than 20 times the actual amount. Given this misconception, it is understandable much of the public believes that we give too much aid.

However, in the same survey, most Americans said they would be willing to spend $50 per year to cut world poverty in half by 2015, the 1996 goal made by world leaders at the World Food Summit. This is substantially more than we spend now.

Foreign aid does not have to be a waste of money. Outspoken critics, such as the president's own Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, have opposed aid because they believe that it has been spent on corrupt governments and ineffective projects. But, there is abundant evidence that certain types of foreign aid have worked. Recent studies show that when aid is focused on eradicating disease and increasing productivity, it can have impressive results.

Foreign aid can diminish security threats. A study conducted by the CIA concludes that one of the strongest predictors of unstable governments is a high rate of infant deaths. (High infant death rates are generally due to malnutrition and disease.) These types of governments are the very ones that end up "harboring terrorists."

So how should this increase in foreign aid be spent? The Global Fund for AIDS, TB and malaria was established last year by United Nations head Kofi Annan to address the health crises which are ravaging much of the world. In response, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Representative Barbara Lee have requested that President Bush and the appropriate House and Senate committee chairs immediately commit $700 million in emergency supplemental funding for this year and $1.2 billion for next year for the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and malaria.

President Bush is currently proposing only $200 million in next year's budget, a decrease of one-third from the current year. AIDS, TB and malaria kill over 6 million people per year, or 17,000 each day. And they are destabilizing entire regions. Infection rates for AIDS in some countries are reaching 40 percent of the adult population. Africa now has over 14 million orphans due to AIDS deaths and, if insufficient action is taken, the number will increase to 40 million by 2010.

Yet affordable prevention and treatment exists for all three diseases. In addition, Boxer, along with Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., has introduced the Stop TB Act that would triple funding to fight tuberculosis, from $75 million to $200 million. The current Bush budget would reduce TB funding by one-third next year -- in spite of the fact that TB will kill more people this year than any other year in history.

With fully one-third of world's population infected with the TB bacteria, TB is the second biggest infectious killer of adults in the world and the leading killer of young women and people infected with AIDS. Yet the disease, for the most part, is easy and cheap to treat. There is added urgency in that new forms of expensive to treat, multi-drug resistant TB are becoming more prevalent as the current crisis is not addressed. And recent increases in TB have been noted here in the United States, after decades of declines.

WHILE still short of the goal established by world leaders a decade ago to spend 0.7 percent of GDP on foreign aid, this increase in U.S. foreign aid is a first step. Let's make sure that it is spent where the greatest needs are. And let's make sure that our representatives have our support in their attempts to do this.

Chris Gilbert is a partner in the Oakland Chapter of RESULTS, a grass-roots lobbying group working to end poverty and hunger.

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