Wednesday, January 05, 2005

More on international aid

Nicholas Kristof has a column today related to what I wrote about yesterday. Basically he says that disaster aid is great, but less visible needs like malaria, AIDS, clean water, and education are at least as important (if not more so). We could do a lot of good with very little money, with things like $5 insecticide-treated mosquito nets, to prevent malaria transmission; drugs that can cure TB (currently infecting one-third of the world's population) and cost about $1/day; free meals in schools to make sure kids show up. And we ought to be giving a lot more money to those issues than we are.

These issues are all tied up with the kind of prevention that I was talking about yesterday. Disease and illiteracy are huge barriers to ending global poverty and creating prosperity, and prosperity is ultimately the only way to get the kind of safe buildings and good infrastructure that could bring earthquake death tolls down from 1 million to 50,000. There's a psychological block - an attentional deficit - that prevents us giving the money that these problems deserve but that allows us to give after-the-fact disaster aid.

It's not just that giving money to these simple and cost-effective programs will save lives immediately (which it undoubtedly will, and which is a great thing). It's also that these basic problems are holding developing countries' economies back in ways that people often don't think about: Malaria, for example, is a significant burden on many developing countries. Malaria makes children miss or drop out of school or learn more slowly; adults lose productivity; tourists don't want to visit the area; etc. So reducing the burden of malaria not only saves lives right now, but it will save lives in the future by helping developing countries become prosperous (and thus build working health care systems, end hunger and starvation, etc.). The same goes with TB, HIV/AIDS, diarrheal diseases, and others. A similar argument could be made on education and women's rights.

Meanwhile, Daniel Drezner points out that though the U.S. is very stingy in direct aid, as Kristof said, we aren't so bad on other things like immigration (many immigrants send part of their wages back home) or smart investment (encouraging development). These other policies do help alleviate poverty by helping development. Still, they can't do as much to save lives as directly attacking infectious diseases. So, we really ought to give more money to charities like Doctors without Borders and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.


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