Global crisis is too close to home to be ignored. Dorothy Zinberg joined in the search for solutions
The statistics of global poverty are mind-numbing: more than 1 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water; 1.2 billion subsist on less than $1 per day; Aids is ravaging a huge percentage of the population in sub-Saharan Africa, while women and children continue to suffer even more than men from malnutrition and disease.
The United Nations Human Development Report states that more than 1 billion people in developing countries will not live beyond the age of 40, and that they continue to lack access to minimal public and private services. The speed of exchange - whether of capital or ideas - has brought the world closer: what happens in one country affects the lives of those in other countries. Consequently, leaving aside the humanitarian and moral dimensions of inaction, ignoring the deprivations of billions of people, no matter how far removed they are from the developed countries, will be deleterious to the well-being of those who live in richer countries. What then can be done to rally effective action around the world?
In an unlikely setting, global poverty quickly became the overriding topic when the Aspen Institute, under the banner "Globalisation and The Human Condition", gathered some 500 people from around the world to participate in a four-day symposium celebrating its 50th anniversary. At the birth of the institute, Aspen was a deserted mining town with unpaved roads and glorious mountains where small groups of corporate leaders met to read the classics. But the anniversary symposium was played out on a larger scale, with well-known scholars, scientists, corporate chiefs, social commentators, clergy, environmentalists, university presidents, former heads of state and the newest celebrities -computer gurus - on the stage and in the audience.
But perhaps in the glaring contrast between so much wealth and the stark statistics of poverty and disease in developing nations, everyone was reawakened to a looming global crisis and the need for action, not out of charity alone, but also out of self-interest. The repercussions of human degradation and political chaos are destined to reverberate across the globe in the spread of disease, untrammelled emigration, civil wars and the fallout of childhood malnutrition.
But what to do about it? The opening speaker, James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, in an elegantly cadenced talk filled with the all-too-familiar mind-numbing statistics, seemed to have little to offer - this despite the fact that the World Bank makes some $80 billion in loans every year, $17 billion to sub-Saharan governments. Although unstated, the spectre of corruption hovered over much of what was said about these loans.
Without basic anti-corruption rule of law measures, there is little hope that private investors who have outpaced governments as the source of capital will be willing to invest significantly in these countries.
Wolfensohn's World Bank epitomises well-meaning, well-endowed quasi-governmental organisations. But there was little sense that it was going to make much of a dent in the horrific statistics or in the lives of the poor.
The one speaker with hands-on experience and a guardedly hopeful view was former US president Jimmy Carter, who spoke of the power of the individual to bring about change. Admittedly, when he and his wife, Rosalynn, approach a donor or a recipient village, the clout of his previous presidency rides ahead of him. But under the aegis of the Carter Center, they have built up an impressive record in providing housing for the poor around the world and have brought about amazing health improvements in Africa. As Carter said, "the potential for corporate giving has been sadly underestimated".
Some time ago he requested $250,000 from Edgar Bronfman, the head of a major conglomerate, so that they could begin to try to eradicate guinea worm, a parasite that breeds in stagnant water and inflicts excruciating pain on its victims. Bronfman readily agreed but added that his company owned 20 per cent of Dupont, a firm that makes water filters. Within a short time, millions of dollars worth of filters had been donated. In 16 African countries, India and Yemen, 97 per cent of guinea worm infections has been eradicated. Along with Dupont, other manufacturers have formed a coalition of donors and abetted the efforts of health care workers and trained village workers who, along with government organisations, have made great strides.
Obviously, these efforts are not enough. Carter believes that the UN has to become more deeply involved and Americans less stingy. But he also made a passionate plea to listen to these countries themselves. For example, Ethiopia desperately needs medical schools. Sending students abroad has failed as they do not return. Here, a large-scale programme to provide medical schools with a visiting faculty across the neediest countries would make a difference.
Carter spoke to hundreds of people on a Sunday morning in a sun-filled tent; he was the minister delivering a sermon, one that even sceptical Republicans found inspiring. Thunderous applause and a long standing ovation followed his final words.
I heard only one dissenting voice: "He hasn't made one damn bit of difference. It's a drop in the bucket. Only governments and international leaders can change the situation." I looked around. It was Robert McNamara, the architect of the ultimate US government folly - the Vietnam War. Carter never looked stronger.
Dorothy S. Zinberg teaches at the John F. Kennedy school of government, Harvard, United States.