Friday 24 June 2011

Should the United States help drive global development?

Delivering Meaningful Results in Global Development’, a lecture by Dr Rajiv Shah, LSE, London, Tuesday 14 June

Flying into London from the States last week, Dr Rajiv Shah had a packed agenda discussing the GAVI programme (the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) he was working on: one of many the ways Dr Shah, an administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is trying to make peoples’ lives better and longer no matter where they are from.

During his speech Dr Shah explained that the reason he chose this career was very personal, originally stemming from a visit he made to India with his father. Never before had he seen such an impoverished nation, in so much need of aid. From then on, he told the audience, he decided that he would spend his life trying to help countries that are in severe need, and help to make life there better.

USAID is currently undertaking several projects around the world, two of which Dr Shah spoke about in considerable detail. One of them is helping impoverished places in Africa, and elsewhere, to decrease the percentage of malnourished people while aiming to stimulated their economy at the same time. This is being achieved by giving crop technology and other food technology to small scale farmers from developing countries, and allowing them to grow their business using cell phones.

Shah also spoke on the topic of global health, and how it will take ‘political will and global effort to gain global health’. People around the world would need to realise this had to be made a priority and accept that every human being has the right to some basic medical needs. In the next couple of years Dr Shah hopes to implement several new projects and hopefully change millions of lives. The first step would be providing immunisation for every human being in the world.

In the longer term, he wants to start the ‘Saving Life at Birth’ programme, where technologies, drugs and skilled assistants would be provided for many of the women that have none. He also expressed an ambition to create a vaccine for malaria, reducing the amount of unnecessary deaths that occur because of it. In addition, he plans to start addressing HIV/AIDS and help the UN with their project to end paediatric AIDS.   

Although it seems like he really does want to help many people around the world, it became evident that the United States government is making it very hard to do so (the UK government by contrast has controversially made GAVI the main plank of its overseas aid policy). With the constant bickering between the two major American political parties, it becomes really hard to gain approval to secure the budgets needed for these projects. The most common reason given by Senators or Congressman, Republicans and Democrats alike, give for voting down the budget is that the United States can’t afford it.

This is absurd. The reality is that the US really only spends about 0.1% of its GDP on foreign aid, a tiny proportion of the budget. So rather than saying it can’t afford more, why doesn’t the United States government try a new approach: make peace, not war? Instead of spending billions upon billions of dollars on the military, it could channel these funds into projects that could make a real difference to many people’s lives. As the party politics and the endless bickering continues, senators and congressman are failing to heed the very clear point that Dr Shah - and others like him - are making: the US should help now, so they don’t have to help later.

Dr Shah used a very clever example using North Korea and South Korea, explaining that since the United States helped South Korea years ago, it is now surviving on its own and relies very little on aid. Yet North Korea was never helped and, as soon as the Communist regime falls, it will be a huge burden on the whole world. As Shah concludes: ‘We can’t afford not to help as it will cost much more to deal with the North Korea’s later’. After listening to this lecture, it became very clear to me that the United States government needs more people like Dr Shah in power, and less party-crazed politicians.     


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