This article first appeared in the Boston Globe on Nov. 15, 2005
With the international donors conference for millions of earthquake victims in Kashmir in northern Pakistan collecting only about a quarter of its $550 million goal in Geneva recently, it is fair to ask if the United States and others are doing enough.
To be sure, the United States has sent badly needed military helicopters and an army field hospital, donating a total of $156 million. But this is a small sum when measured against the cost of fighting al Qaida worldwide, let alone the war in Iraq. The United States is unlikely to prevail by military means; a better alternative must be provided.
In Pakistan, a pivotal Muslim nation, the United States cannot afford to fall short. The Kashmir catastrophe affects larger numbers of people than the Asian tsunami last year in more difficult terrain. Many face death with the onset of the forbidding Himalayan winter in Kashmir, especially children, and time is running out.
To address this tragedy and other human needs, reconsideration of America’s international spending priorities finally must be at the center of any serious debate.
The defense budget now exceeds $440 billion a year, 40 percent above that spent before Sept. 11. Counting spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, total expenditures for the US military exceed $500 billion annually. In contrast, the respected British journal, the Lancet, has published a study stressing that $5.1 billion (about one-half of 1 percent of the $1 trillion in annual global military spending) could save the lives of 6 million children worldwide.
To put it another way, UNICEF’s annual budget is spent on the world’s military purposes every 15 hours, even as one billion children live in almost unimaginable conditions of deprivation.
Consider the potential impact on both human lives and on world opinion of devoting a portion of the huge U.S. defense budget to stepping up humanitarian and development assistance and, more specifically, child survival worldwide. This might contribute to a more secure and peaceful America and world in the long term.
Indeed, a poll by Pew indicates that U.S. deliveries of tsunami aid in Aceh, part of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, may have done more to promote goodwill toward the United States than anything else since Sept. 11. Many Marines were elated at how they were greeted by local people, comparing this with the extreme hazards and hostility they face in Iraq.
One should recall the way U.S. forces were welcomed in Europe in the years of the Marshall Plan from 1947-51. Under the plan, the United States contributed about $13 billion (about $100 billion in today’s dollars) toward the rebuilding of Europe.
Today, finding ways to eradicate malnutrition and conduct public health campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan could bolster successful transitions to democracy. Afghanistan has maternal mortality rates about 60 times the rate in industrialized nations. One-fifth of all children die before age 5, 80 percent from preventable diseases.
Moreover, several Middle Eastern countries are falling behind in meeting child survival criteria of the Millennium Development Goals. The goals, aimed at reducing by half the 1.1 billion people living in extreme poverty by 2015, were unanimously adopted by the United Nations with US support in 2000.
The example of Yemen warrants special notice. This is, after all, the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden and the locale of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
According to UNICEF, the number of babies who die in childbirth in Yemen is 366 per 100,000, compared with nine in the United States. One third of Yemen’s children go unvaccinated.
Similar conditions exist in Sudan, Bangladesh, and other Muslim countries (including Pakistan), linchpins in the struggle against terror, where the United States needs all the goodwill it can muster. And despite recent gains, child mortality remains high in Indonesia, and especially in neighboring East Timor, still recovering from devastation by Indonesian forces in 1999.
The disparity between the costs of the war in Iraq and spending on child survival in countries such as Yemen is stark. Beyond its inherent value in moral and human terms, the message sent by a significant adjustment of these priorities could have a powerful impact over time.
The unpopularity of the war in Iraq will continue to be a complicating factor, but going forward, a different dynamic can be created. This should include a major boost in U.S. earthquake aid for Kashmir to help the most vulnerable, among them, children.
World security depends upon a creative reordering of spending priorities.