Fearing a Drought of Aid

Flood victims in Haiti carried sacks of rice from international aid organization CARE. Bush has argued against cutting such aid amid the global financial crisis.
Flood victims in Haiti carried sacks of rice from international aid organization CARE. Bush has argued against cutting such aid amid the global financial crisis. (By Ariana Cubillos -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

President Bush, who has made international aid a cornerstone of his foreign policy, warned yesterday against cutting U.S. assistance to impoverished nations in the midst of the financial turmoil sweeping Wall Street and Main Street, arguing that doing so would undermine America's economy, national security and moral authority.

"During times of economic crisis, some may be tempted to turn inward -- focusing on our problems here at home, while ignoring our interests around the world," Bush said at a White House summit on international development in Washington. "This would be a serious mistake. America is committed, and America must stay committed, to international development for reasons that remain true regardless of the ebb and flow of the markets."

The remarks came as fears grew that the financial crisis could further harm developing nations already whipsawed by surging food and energy prices over the past two years.

The United Nations estimates that, even before the market crisis, rising food prices had pushed an additional 75 million people into chronic hunger, bringing the total to 925 million after years of decline.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in an interview yesterday that her country, and others in Africa, were feeling the pinch of the global economic crisis. Foreign investors battered in their home countries, she said, were scaling back plans to build a massive palm oil plantation and factory.

A major London-based mining company, she added, is behind schedule on a $1.5 billion plan to extract iron ore and build roads. "That's going to have a major impact on the poor," she said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a pitch for preserving foreign aid at yesterday's conference. "Some will ask the inevitable question in these troubled times: 'How can we afford it?' " she said. "I would ask instead, 'How can we not afford it?' "

Even before the recent crisis, Western largesse was waning. The Bush administration, which has garnered accolades for dramatic increases in U.S. international aid programs, cut its foreign aid in 2007 by 3.5 percent, to $21.7 billion, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"Developing countries have been making real progress, so this is a real setback," said David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy group. "The one piece of good news from the last eight years is that the world has made real progress against poverty, and the U.S. has been quite good in this area."

The two major U.S. presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), have suggested that the financial crisis would not curtail their ambitions for foreign aid. Obama has vowed to more than double the annual outlay for international aid, to $50 billion, while McCain has focused on reforming the bureaucracy that doles out U.S. assistance.

Obama spokeswoman Wendy Morigi said that if elected president, Obama would likely "extend the time period" for meeting his $50 billion aid target. "The current financial crisis, along with the $700 billion recovery package, will clearly put short-term pressure on our budget," she said.

McCain has not put a dollar amount on foreign assistance, but he is committed to using both public and private money to pay for increased aid, according to Richard Fontaine, McCain's senior foreign policy adviser. "We are going through tough economic times, and we have to take that into consideration," he said. "But we are also a generous country."

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