Rich-poor divide poses unrelenting threat


NEW YORK — According to the just released U.N. report “The Inequality Predicament,” increasing poverty and the growing gap between the rich and poor will be major threats to developing coun- tries’ peace and stability. The report, prepared by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Affairs Department, found that the divide between rich and poor is now greater than it was a decade ago. That chasm, according to the report, will continue to breed violence and terror if it is not narrowed.

Poverty has caused many more deaths than terrorism, and has hindered the proper development of children worldwide. Malnutrition, illness and inadequate care during childhood hinders children’s learning and proper development.

Poor children initiate a vicious cycle passed on to future generations. Malnourished girls become malnourished mothers who give birth to underweight children who have greater mortality risks than newborns of normal weight.

According to Oxfam, 45 million children will die needlessly by 2015 because industrialized countries are failing to provide the resources they promised to overcome poverty. The World Health Organization estimates that the probability of dying in most developing countries before age 5 is five times higher for lower socio-economic groups than national averages.

Today it is estimated that 600 million to 700 hundred million children are struggling to survive on less than $1 a day, representing 40 percent of all children in developing countries. Many countries spend more on repaying foreign debt than on health and education services for their people. Today 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product belongs to 1 billion people living in industrialized countries, while the remaining 20 percent is shared by 5 billion people living in developing countries.

Oxfam states that the budgetary percentage of foreign aid provided by rich countries today is half of what it was in the 1960s. Meanwhile, for the first time since the Cold War, global military expending exceeded $1 trillion in 2004. Almost half this amount was spent by the United States.

Poverty is the consequence not only of developing countries’ failed policies and corruption; it is also the result of industrialized countries’ imposition of unfair trade conditions and their support of corrupt regimes for political or strategic reasons and wrong economic policies imposed by international financial institutions. These policies have resulted in huge foreign debts that hinder social progress and contribute to high levels of violence.

Strategic aid is vital to enable poor countries to develop and extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty. To be effective, aid should be dissociated from the obligation to buy goods and services from donor countries. Funds should be delivered in a timely manner, and they should have adequate monitoring mechanisms to ensure that they are properly used. At present 20 percent of the European Union’s aid reaches beneficiaries a year late, and 92 percent of Italian foreign aid is contingent upon buying Italian goods and services.

Developing countries’ governments, for their part, should demonstrate a serious commitment to fighting poverty. They should meet the U.N. recommendation of spending at least 20 percent of their public budgets on providing basic health and social services to the poorest sectors of the population and on combating corruption.

This is a difficult challenge, since many leaders in developing countries are responsible for maintaining a predatory culture over public funds. I have seen the effects of this culture during the more than 45 health-related missions in which I have participated worldwide. The African Union has estimated that corruption every year costs African countries more than $148 billion. That’s why the most effective form of aid is to bypass corrupt governments and find ways to help people more directly. This can be done by supporting nongovernment organizations with a proven record of honesty and effectiveness.

The U.N. report stresses that violence is often rooted in inequality. As U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has stated, “There will be no peace and no security, even for the most privileged among us, in a world that remains divided between extremes of wealth and poverty, health and disease, knowledge and ignorance, freedom and oppression.”