IN THE WAKE of the Sept. 11 attacks, a new consensus appeared to form on the importance of economic progress in poor countries. President Bush, whose administration had been skeptical about the efficacy of development aid, embraced it as part of the nation's response to terrorism. He went on to promise two initiatives -- a $5 billion-a-year expansion in foreign assistance, plus a $3 billion annual expansion in U.S. support for international AIDS programs -- which together represented an 80 percent jump in America's financial commitment to poor countries. Sen. John F. Kerry, for his part, has a good record on these issues, too, particularly on AIDS funding. Indeed, Mr. Kerry says that if elected he would double Mr. Bush's already large commitment to international AIDS programs.
The worry is that, although both candidates look good on paper, neither has made the prospects for poor countries a central part of his campaign. The fact that 3 billion people, half of all humanity, live on $2 a day has not been featured in the candidates' speeches or in the debates. Nor was the fact that some 5 million people are newly infected with HIV each year (though the global AIDS pandemic was discussed briefly in the vice presidential debate, thanks to the candidates' inability to respond directly to a question about domestic infection rates among black women). There also has been no mention of the fact that the multilateral trade negotiators are trying to craft tariff cuts that would boost economic growth in poor countries and that success or failure in this effort may depend on the commitment of the next president. Back in the early summer, people in the Kerry campaign were hoping that their candidate would give a speech highlighting his admirable record on AIDS. But Mr. Kerry has barely mentioned the subject. He left it to his daughter to deliver an AIDS talk in Atlanta a month ago, and he referred to AIDS during a foreign-policy speech only after prompting from a heckler.
No doubt the candidates judge that foreign assistance is way down on voters' list of priorities. But it's not clear they are right. Foreign assistance has to be part of a broad strategy of enlightened American leadership, a subject that voters do care about, and voters' altruistic desire to help people in desperate need should not be underestimated. Earlier this year Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) assumed that foreign assistance did not have a political constituency when he tried to cut its allocation in the House budget plan. But when pro-aid groups aired a radio commercial in his district, his office was peppered with phone calls, and the congressman reversed himself. "Iowans are somewhat more globally aware than people give them credit for," Bishop Phillip Hougen of Iowa told Roll Call, noting that his synod is in close contact with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania.
Whatever the politics of foreign assistance, it would be reassuring if Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry spoke out in support of their own policies occasionally. In the absence of public advocacy, it's not clear that the president's new development programs or Mr. Kerry's promise on AIDS would actually be funded. Only three years have passed since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, but the commitment to the new pro-development consensus may already be fraying.