Social Ministry Day Two: 'Foreign aid works,' Catholic expert insists

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Washington, D.C.

Charges that foreign aid doesn’t work due to poor governance and corruption in developing nations amounts to a “pernicious perception,” according to the head of the largest umbrella group for Catholic charitable agencies worldwide, who urged developed nations to increase foreign aid to meet a U.N. benchmark of 0.7 percent of GNP.

The comments from Lesley-Ann Knight, the first woman to be elected secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, came in an address to the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington, D.C. Caritas Internationalis, with headquarters in the Vatican, is a confederation of 162 Catholic agencies in various parts of the world.

Knight is a British citizen, born in Zimbabwe, who studied in South Africa during the apartheid era. She conceded that mismanagement and corruption do siphon away a share of foreign aid resources, but charged that Western governments need to shoulder some of the blame.

“What about donor governments that support corrupt regimes?” she asked. “What about international corporations that support these regimes? Are we in many cases simply serving our national interests? Is the aid in some cases tied to too many conditions?”

In addition, Knight said, there is evidence in recent years that development assistance in producing results, citing a reduction in the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty between 1990 and 2002 from 28 percent to 19 percent.

“Aid does work,” she said.

Knight also suggested that it’s hypocritical to fault foreign aid allocations for failing to life developing nations out of poverty, when poor nations lose 14 times more in unfair trading practices every year, such as tariffs, subsidies and dumping, than they gain in aid from developed nations.

Knight said that most Americans are unaware of what a small percentage of federal spending, currently less than one percent of the annual federal budget, is composed of foreign aid. Despite the fact that the United Nations has established 0.7 percent of GNP as the benchmark, she said the United States currently spends only on 0.17 percent of GNP in assistance to impoverished countries.
tEven small increases, Knight said, could make a huge difference. For example, she said that an additional $13 billion a year could supply basic nutrition and health care for most of the world’s most impoverished people. That figure, she said, represents two-thirds of what the United States and Europe spend on pet food.

Knight rattled off a grim litany of statistics about poverty – that one million poor people die every year of malaria, for example, including a child every 30 seconds, and that a half-million poor women die every year from complications related to pregnancy.

Yet, she said, poverty is not only about how people die, but also how they live.

“It’s people living knowing that tomorrow they will not eat,” she said. “It’s about living with disease, without proper housing, without a toilet, without security.”

“Global poverty is not a fact of life,” she said. “It can and must be eradicated.”

Knight also touched upon armed conflict and climate change, both of which, she said, tend to have a disproportionately negative impact upon the poor. She cited the example or Darfur, where fighting between farmers and herders first broke out after the seasonal rains failed and water shortages broke out.

Poverty, war and climate change combine to form a “vicious circle,” Knight said.

Knight said that the 1967 encyclical of Pope Paul VI Populorum Progressio remains a touchstone for Catholic anti-poverty efforts.

“I attended university in South Africa during the apartheid era, when Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island,” she said. “On a clear day in Capetown, where I was, I could see Robben Island. I was there when Stephen Biko was assassinated. In that context, Populorum Progressio was hot, radical stuff in our Catholic student societies,” she said.

“The document still moves me, and its challenges are still as radical,” she said.

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