Defining the First World’s Burden


This week, President Bush implored Congress to expand funding for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Despite findings from the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that indicate that abstinence-only programs are ineffective at curtailing rates of STI infection and unwanted pregnancy, Mr. Bush has maintained the policy that one-third of foreign disease prevention funding be tied to abstinence programs.

Nevertheless, the President’s support for an expanded American effort to combat AIDS abroad is one of the bright spots of his tenure, providing antiretroviral drugs for over 1.3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and symbolizing a commitment to combating issues in the Third World with First World resources. During his 2003 State of the Union address, Mr. Bush stated, “This nation can lead the world in sparing innocent people from a plague of nature.”

We must take his words one step further and declare that this nation and others like it have an affirmative obligation to aid poor nations, not only in eradicating and treating disease, but in combating the problems of poverty.

In 2006, the United States gave 22.7 billion dollars in aid, or 0.17% of gross national income, far short of the 0.7% United Nations goal, and 20% less than 2005. While the US gives the largest amount of money in absolute terms, it gives less than any other developed nation as a percentage of GDP. Opponents of increased aid insist that private contributions by the American public constitute the bulk of the nation’s contribution. Indeed, the State Department recently released a report showing that private contributions amounted to 95.5 billion dollars worth of aid in 2005, 79% of the national total.

However, if you discount private remittances by individuals living in the United States to their families abroad, the number is only 33.8 billion dollars, which constitutes just over 0.3% of gross national income. Others, such as William Easterly, whose recent book The White Man’s Burden sharply criticized the West’s efforts at international aid, claim that the current structure of international relief is paternalistic and lacking accountability.

While the methodology of international aid is surely flawed – an enormous percentage of aid goes to consultants and other administrative costs domestically – a more basic issue must first be addressed: how much aid America should provide to solve the problems of other nations when there are deep problems here at home. It is tempting to believe that nations must live by the Harvardian creed of “every tub on its own bottom.” However, the history of imperialism, the values of charity and decency, and the economic realities of a global market dictate otherwise.

First, just as affirmative action is an effort to acknowledge and rectify the historical effects of racism in America, so must international aid be viewed as an effort to solve problems that were of our own making. While America herself was not an active participant in the carving up of Africa, our nation sought to expand her reach over nations in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Our exploitation of these regions has augmented our wealth and power while subjugating native populations to poverty and instability.

Second, if Americans truly believe in so-called family values, which have become an increasingly central aspect of American politics with the rise of the Christian Right, it is morally imperative that we fight problems of global poverty with greater resources. Economic issues cannot be separated from social issues. Indeed, the same groups that use values-based arguments to combat abortion rights and gay marriage should focus their passions on convincing the American people that it is their moral, philosophical, and religious duty to aid in the fight against global poverty.

Lastly, in our debates over whether to provide more for international aid in lieu of spending more domestically, we must not lose sight of the fact that even in this era of the falling dollar, one dollar abroad is far more valuable than a dollar stateside. Today, $149 provides antiretroviral drugs for an entire year and $34 provides meals to a child for a year. The endless debates about throwing billions of dollars at Medicaid, Social Security, and Homeland Security never seemed so small.

In 1899, in response to the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, Rudyard Kipling penned “The White Man’s Burden,” exhorting his contemporaries to establish colonies and maintain control over savage peoples who were “half-devil and half-child.” Today, we acknowledge imperialism for what it truly was: a racially-motivated exploitation of resources, human and natural, the world over. The 21st century is no longer about the White Man’s Burden, but rather the First World’s burden – not to dictate the histories of other nations through direct interference, but to actively use its wealth to solve problems of health, education, and poverty worldwide. So when you are looking for a gift this holiday season, consider giving one that will inspire those at home and offer hope and health to our brothers and sisters abroad.

Andrew L. Kalloch is a 2L.

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