'Where were the leaders?': The MDGs at 10 years old

May 11, 2010

This article first appeared in the Featured Voice section of the president of the House of Deputies website here.

One of the heroes of the Anglican Communion, Fr. Gideon Byamugisha, an HIV-positive priest in the Church of Uganda, asks us to imagine a world in 25 years that did not summon the moral and political will to eradicate extreme poverty and deadly disease. He speaks of those who will be "survivors" 25 years from now.

"The greatest and most obvious gaps that survivors will wonder about, and be angry about," he says, "are the missed opportunities, the lack of political will and the lack of total commitment by those of us in leadership positions to use all that we knew and all that we had to fight [poverty and disease.] They will surely ask 'What went wrong?' 'What prevented us from transforming the knowledge and the resources we had, into focused will and targeted action?' 'Who were the world leaders at that time?'"

The world is now less than five years away from the completion point of the Millennium Development Goals, the commitments made a decade ago by world leaders to cut deadly poverty around the world in half by 2015. By some measures, important progress is being made in impoverished countries as a result of MDG initiatives. Consider, for example, the way in which debt cancellation has allowed poor countries like Tanzania to boost primary-school enrollment rates to unexpected levels.

But what about political will in countries like the United States, the momentum that will define whether the world makes it over the finish line for the MDGs by 2015?

Just a few years ago, the answer to that question looked promising. In 2005, world leaders at the G8 summit -- including President George W. Bush -- made historic commitments to new foreign-aid levels and debt-cancellation programs. In 2008, Congress and the president -- with the strong backing of people of faith -- passed legislation that promised to triple U.S. funding for the fight against AIDS and malaria in poor countries. That same year the House passed -- though the Senate ran out of time -- the Jubilee Act for new levels of debt cancellation to poor countries.

What about today, though?

To answer that question, we must note the two seismic political shifts that have taken place in the intervening years. The first, of course, is the election of Barack Obama on a crest of momentum for transformational change, including a pledge to double foreign aid and reprioritize the fight against global poverty. This, by itself, would be very good news.

The second dynamic shift, however, is even more noteworthy, and tempers the first substantially: the global economic crisis that first came into stark relief during the middle weeks of September 2008. The political impact of the crisis has been to narrow the gaze of American politicians to focus almost exclusively on problems domestic: American families who have lost their homes, their jobs, or their health insurance. All vital needs. The unfortunate back side, however, is that -- while we know that the economic crisis has been felt even more in developing countries, with at least 100 million new people pushed below the deadly poverty line -- the needs of these children of God have scarcely drawn notice from American politicians.

The president, who promised to double foreign-aid commitments, has now presented two annual budget requests to Congress that effectively decrease poverty-focused aid. A heroic effort by the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA), to reform foreign aid laws to make them more responsive to global poverty has met unexpected resistance among colleagues. The Jubilee Act, which came within a hair's breath of passage in 2008 with both Senators Obama and Biden as original cosponsors, has been declared all but dead by its backers, who cite a lack of political momentum. Even America's much-vaunted commitment to the fight against global AIDS, has been undercut in the federal budget by executive and legislative branch alike.

As Fr. Gideon would ask, where are the leaders? What went wrong? And more importantly, can we get things back on track with just five years left to go until the completion point for the MDGs?

An April poll conducted by The Economist showed a nonsensical dichotomy between Americans' widespread support for reduced government spending and deficits, on the one hand, and their support for increased spending in nearly every specific area they were asked about, on the other. The one area, however, where Americans did support reduced federal spending was foreign aid. Americans seemingly like the idea of foreign aid in fat times, but oppose actual spending toward it in lean times. If this is indeed true, then the outlook for our MDG work -- to say nothing of our world -- seems very grim indeed.

But, I wonder, is the premise really true? For three important reasons, I believe it's not true, and thus I have three resulting suggestions for how we should fine-tune our advocacy to address the misperception.

First, I would challenge the assumption that Americans truly oppose the aims of poverty-focused foreign aid. Indeed, a great deal of polling shows just the opposite: that Americans widely support spending money to put children in school, provide families with $10 malaria nets to sleep beneath, help women in poor countries start businesses, and provide sick people access to anti-retroviral drugs. The problem is that Americans vastly overestimate what our nation presently spends on these things.

A frequently cited poll, for example, shows that a plurality of Americans believes our nation spends about 10 percent of its annual budget on foreign aid. Were this true, I believe very few Americans would not support curtailing this spending, particularly in times of domestic need. In fact, our nation spends far less than this, less than one percent of its annual budget, on foreign aid. And a large portion of this is military or strategic aid, not help to the sick and the suffering.

So, first, we must be vigilant in telling the story of how little our nation spends, and how relatively minor even a doubling of foreign aid would be in budgetary impact.

The second reason I don't believe Americans truly oppose foreign-aid spending is that it's very clear that Americans support the specific goals of such spending. We know this not just from the polls I described earlier, but also from Americans' unequalled level of private giving to initiatives like disaster relief in foreign countries and the development campaigns run by their religious denominations. No other rich country can boast such levels of individual contribution. Americans do indeed support the goals of foreign aid. Where they take pause, however, is in questioning the effectiveness of U.S. government-run programs.

So, we must counter this by pointing to the well-documented successes of American foreign aid. And indeed, the successes are well-documented: primary-school enrollment tripled in countries like Uganda and Tanzania because of American-led debt relief efforts; usage rates of anti-retroviral drugs to treat AIDS have increased meaningfully in sub-Saharan Africa because of U.S. HIV/AIDS programs. There is even good evidence that American foreign-aid programs like the Millennium Challenge, an initiative which stresses good governance in poor countries, have had a ripple effect in encouraging non-recipient countries to root out corruption and waste. Let's tell these stories!

Third and finally, I don't believe Americans really oppose foreign-aid spending because they've rallied, time-and-again, to the cause when the energy of advocates like ourselves have given them a good reason to do so. The Jubilee 2000 debt-cancellation initiative didn't happen on its own, but rather because Americans -- particularly people of faith from diverse backgrounds -- banded together with unprecedented creativity and energy to make it happen. The historic U.S. HIV/AIDS initiative happened only after activists helped Americans understand why the world, and indeed our own national wellbeing, were being weakened by untold levels of death in poor countries. Americans do, indeed, support achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and have indeed demonstrated it in repeated, diverse circumstances over the past decade.

So, most importantly, let's resolve -- with only five years left until the endpoint of the MDGs -- to renew the passion in our advocacy. This fall, world leaders will come together in New York to assess where things stand and what we must do to get back on track. President Obama will be there, and will speak. In the months leading up to this event, it will be up to us to let him know that Americans -- while very supportive of measures to alleviate the economic suffering of our own nation in these tough times -- also support a vibrant new U.S. commitment to keep the promises we've made.

How can you help? Join the Episcopal Public Policy Network at www.episcopalchurch.org/eppn and our partnership with the ONE Campaign, called ONE Episcopalian, at www.episcopalchurch.org/ONE. Get your congregation and community involved. You'll be hearing a great deal from us in the coming months.

As for Gideon Byamugisha's question -- where were the leaders? -- I am in hopes that 25 years from now, we can say that we were here. I hope we can say that the leaders were you and me.