More on Obama and Africa: the Global Poverty Act

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In a web piece that published yesterday, I note many of the enlightening conversations about Barack Obama that I had on my recent trip to Africa.

I should add one thing: Kenyans and Tanzanians I spoke with rejected the idea that they support Obama (and they almost universally do) because he will usher in a more favorable foreign policy toward Africa. “All Americans presidents have the same policy on Africa,” one man told me. “We do not know if Obama will be different.”

In actual fact, however, Africans have reason to be optimistic. Obama is the primary sponsor of the Global Poverty Act (S. 2433), a bill that would commit the United States to “the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day.” (Full text of the bill here.)

Critics of the bill allege that binding ourselves to the UN’s goals would also bind us to its aid targets. The United Nations asks every nation to contribute 0.7 percent of its GDP to foreign aid. Currently, the United States is missing the mark by a substantial amount:

The 27 EU nations spent 0.38 percent of their gross national income on development aid in 2007, compared with 0.41 percent in 2006. Statistics showed that only the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and Norway were able to meet the 0.7 percent U.N. aid target. The United States spends 0.16 percent on development aid.

Those critics argue that boosting American aid to UN-approved levels would cost $845 billion over 13 years, meaning the apparently horrifying prospect of waging a global war on poverty that costs along the lines of the war in Iraq, which the Congressional Research Service estimates [pdf] has cost $653 billion in the six years since its initiation. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Iraq War will cost an additional $440 billion over the next ten years, assuming troop levels fall to 30,000 by 2010.

Defenders of the bill assert that it establishes no specific funding source and does not commit the United States to anyone else’s standards. They note that the bill calls on the president and the secretary of state, not the United Nations, to develop an action plan.

The bill does appear to be more a statement of priorities than a detailed set of policy solutions. In President Clinton’s last year in office, the US joined more than 180 countries at the United Nations Millennium Summit and agreed to reduce global poverty by 2015. This bill, however, actually makes achieving the the UN goal of cutting extreme global poverty in half in the next seven years official US policy. It requires the president to develop a comprehensive strategy to carry out that policy using aid, debt relief, trade policy, and cooperation with international organizations. Furthermore, it requires the president to outline specific benchmarks and timetables that will allow the public to track progress.

The bill, which has a bi-partisan list of co-sponsors, is a recipe for reintegration into the world community, which suggests Obama sees aid not just as charity but as part of his foreign policy vision. Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, suggested in the press that the bill is about more than the 2.7 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. “For every dollar the U.S. spends on poverty-focused aid, it spends almost US$33 on defense,” he said. “When aid is effective, it builds a safer world for everyone.”


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