When he campaigned for president, then-Senator Obama promised to double foreign assistance, expand debt relief and grant support for poor nations, and reform the IMF and World Bank. Now, as the global economic crisis threatens to drive 52 million people in the developing world into poverty, it is more important than ever for the President to follow through on these commitments.
President Obama’s first critical opportunity to address global poverty will come on April 2, when he attends the G-20 meeting in London. At this gathering, the leaders of the world’s most powerful economies will coordinate their response to the global economic crisis. While the G-20 will be grappling with many urgent issues, they must not forget the world’s poor.
The simple things that we take for granted in the United States are out of reach in the developing world. More than one billion people across the world lack access to clean water and 2.6 billion do not have access to basic sanitation. Every year, we lose 10 million children before their fifth birthday, usually from preventable or treatable causes like measles, diarrhea, and malnutrition.
The challenges seem insurmountable, especially during this time of economic crisis, but solutions are readily available if President Obama and the G-20 seize the moment to take bold action.
First, most urgently, we need to have more and better aid to the countries hardest hit by crisis. This aid should come as grants, rather than loans, to the poorest countries, and we must ensure that it goes to poverty-reduction and the people who need it most.
Second, the G-20 need to address structural issues like global trade reform and climate change. This means providing special trade support to struggling areas like sub-Saharan Africa, and helping poor countries respond to climate problems such as increased droughts or tropical storms.
Third, debt cancellation should be expanded to all countries that need it to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Canceling the debts that impoverished nations owe to the United States and institutions like the World Bank is a proven and effective way to help countries lift their people out of extreme poverty. Let me illustrate.
Secretary Timothy Geithner’s leadership in the 1990s helped to launch debt relief initiatives which, to date, have canceled billions in unpayable debt and freed up funds that have allowed millions of children in Africa and Latin America to attend primary school or get access to health services for the first time. Yet, today, many of the world’s poorest nations are still diverting $100 million every day from health care, education, clean water, and infrastructure to repay debts.
People of faith, evangelicals included, have become increasingly vocal in calling for bold action. As the chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals at the time, I had a front-row seat to the incredible power of the Jubilee 2000 movement. In 1998, politicians and economic pundits said debt cancellation was infeasible. Millions of people of faith, as diverse as Pope John Paul II, Bono, Desmund Tutu and Billy Graham overcame political indifference and injustice by speaking out for debt relief and urging others to lend their voices. The same moral passion is needed now.
Cynics and pessimists claim that the global crisis makes the Millennium Development Goals, and our promises to poor, infeasible. Yet, just as William Wilberforce took on slavery in the British Empire, Martin Luther King Jr. faced down segregation in the South, and Jubilee 2000 delivered freedom from unjust debts for millions, we have a new opportunity today to overcome political infeasibility with moral leadership.
Mr. President, as a man of faith, we haven’t forgotten your call to make debt cancellation and achievement of the Millennium Development Goals “America’s goals.” We call on you to exhibit a spirit of “Yes, we can” kind of leadership. The world is watching and waiting.
Rev. Richard Cizik is a leader within the Micah Challenge, a global movement begun by the World Evangelical Alliance, to fight poverty, hunger and disease.