New U.N. Secretary General Brings a Fresh Approach: Is Money the Answer?

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Yesterday, news reports out of Saudi Arabia announced that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir signed a joint agreement with the United Nations and the African Union to redefine respective roles in Darfur’s peace process.

If the deal includes a significant U.N. deployment of troops and broader regional influence in diplomatic efforts, as is expected, it is hopeful news for the Sudanese people. Less obvious, but perhaps even more important in the long-term, it suggests a philosophical and operational shift at the United Nations’ headquarters, under the new direction of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Are the days over for thinking that the ultimate answer to poverty, disease and regional strife is increasing the percentage of our annual budget dedicated to material handouts? Let’s hope so. As Darfur has proven, money alone does not cause magical effects.

Since rebels from ethnic tribes rose up against the Sudanese central government four years ago, 200,000 people have been killed and 2.2 million have been forced to evacuate their homes. The local government has been accused of responding to the rebellion by giving free reign to brutal militias to carry out atrocities on its behalf.

Despite high-profile international outcry, including visits from Hollywood stars, nobody has been able to stop the vicious circle of tribal warfare and government retaliation. At the heart of the diplomatic logjam is a dispute over the role of the United Nations. Under the leadership of Kofi Annan, the Sudanese government played and generally won the game of political chess. Sudan has requested and received enormous amounts of “logistical support” from the United Nations, while at the same time refusing significant deployments of U.N. peacekeeping troops or direct U.N. or African Union mediation. President al-Bashir has fended off regional and international interference by hiding behind a distorted vision of the right of national sovereignty, even as his people die by the sword and by hunger in droves. In other words, he has wanted the United Nations to give him money to continue his efforts, without relinquishing any control over his failed strategies.

But perhaps times have changed — even a little bit — in the United Nations. Mr. Ban is no stranger to rogue governments and their ways. As a South Korean, he has seen first hand the demonic power of self-interested government in his neighbor to the North. He has seen North Koreans die of hunger in the long shadows of government warehouses holding tons of rotting international aid. He has seen farmers bent over their antiquated hoes and shovels, just miles from impressive shows of their government’s nuclear, technological might.

Mr. Ban knows throwing money at social problems is not the ultimate answer.

It’s a hard habit to kick, however. Wealthy nations and bureaucracies like the United Nations naturally approach the poor with a finance-focused disposition. Because we know we can’t fix problems of infrastructure, health care, education or water supply without money, we assume and hope doling out increasingly more of it will give us the desired effect. In 1995, the U.S. allocated $16.32 billion constant USD to foreign aid, $18.04 billion constant USD in 2000, and $19.64 billion USD in 2005 ... not counting funds to Iraq (US Embassy, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, 2005).

Are these handouts making a positive short-term difference for some? Of course. Are we fixing the problems? No.

Renowned economists such as William Easterly have spent years studying the relationship between foreign aid and development and have been unable to identify any noticeable positive effects of aid on a country's economic growth. In “The Elusive Quest for Economic Growth,” Easterly highlights India as an illustrative example. Though it received more aid than any other country from the 1950s until the 1980s, India experienced a growth in per capita income of only one percent per year. By the 1990s, the Indian government admitted that the real cause of its economic problems was not insufficient aid but its own policies. Foreign aid, in fact, may have further entrenched these bad policies and the poverty it perpetuated, as the government counted on foreign funds as a Band-Aid instead of addressing its internal problems and authentically developing its people — the greatest resource of any country.

Economist Gary Becker claims that foreign aid programs other than those of a humanitarian nature “are destined to fail because they involve transfers of resources from one government to another and naturally come with strings attached.” No economist, he continues, “who has closely examined the evidence concludes that the reason why some poor countries fail to have significant economic growth is because their governments have insufficient resources.” Rather, “Foreign aid only makes it easier to continue to promote projects and policies that are not merely neutral with respect to growth, but hinder any take off into rapid growth.” (Gary Becker, “Is there a case for foreign aid?” 21 Jan 2007)

But if money alone isn’t the answer, what is?

It has to do, I believe, with the development of the human person, primarily in those areas which distinguish him from all other animals, namely his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual facets.

In 1985, Dominique LaPierre published “City of Joy,” a novel based on his real experiences in the slums of Calcutta, where he found extraordinary modern saints amid the most adverse conditions. He cites the example of Stephen Kovalski, who dedicated his life to the poorest of the poor. As the sole white man in the slum, Kovalski realizes that his presence would not last forever and that, in fact, no amount of western money would ever lift these people from poverty.

"I suggest we all make an individual survey,” said Kovalski, “to find out what are the most immediate problems our brothers want to see given priority.” The results came in three days later. They were all identical. […] The sustenance they sought was not directed at their children’s frail bodies, but at their minds. The six surveys revealed that the primary demand was for the creation of a night school so that children employed in the workshops, stores and tea shops in the alley could learn to read and write. (City of Joy, Arrow Books, 1984, p. 164)

The people of Calcutta were crying out for specifically human development. They did not want to be treated as animals. When they looked at their children, they knew material handouts alone would be insufficient. They longed for the experience of the abundance of human living.

Money is necessary for human development, but it does not define it.

Mr. Ban meets in the New York today headquarters of the United Nations to discuss the implementation of the new agreement with Sudan. Let’s hope he continues to lay out a new philosophy of peace-keeping and humanitarian aid, one that puts the development of the human person — the whole human person — at the front and center of all international action.

God bless, Father Jonathan
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