Column: Out Of The Shadows: America Needs To Take The Lead In The Developing World

This story was written by Raúl A. Carrillo, Harvard Crimson

Things look dark. Today, the whole globe faces a food crisis, an energy crisis and a climate crisis. As the American slow-motion train-wreck, as Harvard Business School Dean Jay O. Light termed the Wall Street emergency, accelerates toward derailment, we now also face a financial crisis. Most dangerous, and inextricably connected to the credit crunch, is the penumbra of one more cataclysm: the development crisis.

Last week, during the 63rd General Assembly of the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed worries that financial problems in the United States might deter leaders from living up to pledges for the Millennium Development Project (MDP). For the U.S., it would certainly be impossible to fund two wars plus the bailout, and still help the poorest of the poor. And yet, the instinctual responses to catastrophe protectionism, withdrawal from the international political and economic community, and decreased foreign aid must be challenged. On the edge of a global recession lies the perfect opportunity for the United States to retake the moral high ground and rejoin the world. The first step is to honor the pledges of the Millennium Development Goals.

The chief reasons why the United States should give more now are not altruistic. By leading the charge for the MDP, the U.S. can regain political credibility and simultaneously cultivate a global economic order better able to promote stable growth. An inward turn now, as the world gears up for collaborative action, would be foolish.

In 2001, the United Nations issued the Millennium Development Goals, eight objectives to advance human welfare, from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, by 2015. Also among the targets were the establishment of universal primary education and reduction of maternal mortality rates. At present rates, with 75 million children lacking schooling and one mother dying in childbirth each minute, these two targets will not even be achieved by 2100, according to British prime minister Gordon Brown.

Part of the failure is due to mismanagement by the UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other NGOs. Even though stupidity has been rife in implementation, the wealthiest donor nations have defaulted on pledges and must now increase aid by $18 billion a year to meet the original goal. Assistance has been anemic when it was supposed to be titanic. Bad situations will likely worsen with the financial implosion, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe, where countries depend heavily upon foreign capital. Turbulence will mean compression of capital flows, labor immobility, and restricted access for the exports of developing nations. Droughts, commodity market speculation, and spiked food, oil, and biofuel prices also bring sorrow. While some first-graders will say goodbye to friends when they are forced to move houses in Indianapolis, more six-year-olds will die from the lack of cooking oil in Dhaka and La Paz.

Politically, why should the United States government bolster aid to the developing world in the midst of the worst disaster since the Great Depression? First, its a chance to earn some respect internationally. Over the last eight years, American aid flows have done little more than keep pace with inflation despite promises otherwise. Second, collaboration at this time will set the stage for the systemic changes needed to reform the global economic order so that todays crisesincluding credit crisescan be avoided in the future. Right now, brewing in the legislatures of the developed world is the same breed of unilateralism and stubbornness that precipitated two world wars. If the G8 nations do not increase aid as promised, the developing countries will slip further into destitution, and fear and violence will amplify wrldwide.

Other nation-states understand the consequences of not lending a hand. At the Assembly last week, China initialized programs to promote clean energy in Africa and Saudi Arabia committed $500 million to enroll 24 million children in primary school. The U.S. only pledged a paltry $61 million over five years, despite the fact that the interconnectedness and global character of all the present crises is becoming painfully apparent. Irony is everywhere. If you think the cash for a $700 billion dollar bailout is coming from taxpayers during an election year, think again: Its coming from Beijings stockpiled reserves.

No one expects the United States to suddenly care about the rest of the worlds problems. But thats precisely why it should do so now. Most expect any further U.S. aid to come from philanthropists. If instead the United States leads the charge to reach the MDGs the worlds single most prized project during its own domestic emergency, it will receive approbation it hasnt enjoyed in years.

The climate is perfect for Americas noble reentry into the world system; all thats missing are a few valiant voices to push it towards collaboration and away from the popular urge for further withdrawal. Momentum for an open global political and economic order that can prevent both future developmental and future financial maelstroms already exists. Now is the time for the United States to lead the charge for the MDGs and signify its willingness to live in a truly globalized world.