If in doubt, blame the United Nations

One thing I have noticed about American columnists, from both right-wing and left-wing perspectives, is that whenever some form of disaster highlights massive problems with America, at some point these columnists will write something critical of the United Nations.

For example, during the shocking and embarrassing revelations about the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, a number of newspapers ran stories that were critical of human-rights abuses in places like China. Condoleeza Rice, within 3 months of the abuse story surfacing, was going around the world lecturing other nations about how they should treat their own citizens. While these criticisms were taking place, columnists would often refer to the United Nations in the same sentence. The inference was clear - when you blame other nations you must also blame the UN. In the parlance of many American writers, the UN is simply "the rest of the world".

Naturally, it has happened again. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its role in exposing the poverty inherent in American society, Nicholas Kristof has written an anti-UN piece for The New York Times entitled "Meet the Fakers". In this article, Kristof takes to task a number of countries for failing to look after their own citizens. This is how his article begins:
The biggest gathering of leaders in history unfolds this week at the United Nations, as they preen and boast about how much they're helping the world's poor. In short, it may be the greatest assembly in history - of hypocrites.
The foundation of Kristof's criticism is based upon a new report released by the UN - the 2005 Human Development Report. By chance, I downloaded this document a couple of days ago, so I am in a good position to verify some of Kristof's assertions.

If the report is read objectively and without patriotic or editorial interference, the United States ends up being the greatest hypocrite of them all. The fact that Kristof does not recognise this implies that his criticism is either blinkered, or at least influenced by editorial decisions that attempt to "balance out" any "liberal bias" that the paper might be perceived to have - especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

To be fair, Kristof does criticise America as well - but his article is not about painful self analysis.

Kristof attacks nations like India and China for not improving their child mortality rates. Fair enough I suppose. He also attacks African nations for not complaining about the "brutal black rule" in Zimbabwe. Good idea.

But there's something worrying me here - he's placing a great deal of blame upon developing nations for "not getting their act together". Does that remind you of anything? How about the multitudes of Americans who sat in their couches, watching the poor black folk in New Orleans and saying "They only have themselves to blame!".

Seeing a homeless person by the side of the road and labelling them a "bum" is one thing. It's another thing to use the same term to label poor nations.

One of the great errors in old socialist thinking over the years was the assumption that poor people, when given enough money and certain material needs, will naturally rise out of their poverty and eventually begin to prosper and look after themselves. This was never the case. Conversely, one of the great errors in modern libertarian and neoliberal thinking is the assumption that eliminating welfare dependence will give the poor incentive to prosper and look after themselves. This is also in error. The only possible alternative is to have some form of "Mutual obligation" for both parties - that the government provide the poor with welfare, so long as the recipients engage in activities that will help them to become self-sufficient.

It is essentially the same idea when we look at poor nations. Rich nations need to give generously so that poor nations can rise out of their poverty and become self-sufficient. Throwing money at them will not work, but lecturing them will not work either. Aid to these nations must be tied to structrual changes in their politics and economics, to ensure that these nations are given the chance to be rewarded for stamping out corruption, cronyism, nepotism and for promoting democracy, freedom and the rule of law. I believe that intervention is necessary, but intervention of the kind which I am describing can't work without the commitment to provide substantial amounts of financial aid.

It is in this sphere - financial aid - that America has a problem with.

There's a story by Jesus that helps illustrate this point. In Mark 12.41-44, Jesus saw rich people donating large sums of money into a donation box at the Temple. He then saw a poor widow come along and donate 2 copper coins. Jesus spoke highly of the widow for she had given all she had, while the rich did not.

America gives more foreign aid than any other nation in the world. According to the 2005 Human Development Report that Nicholas Kristof has reported on, America gave over US$16 billion in overseas aid. The next in in line is Japan, with just under US$9 Billion. There is no doubt that the aid that the US has given has been vital in promoting prosperity and freedom around the world - and that the world may have been a much worse place without this aid.

However, America only gaves 0.15% of its 2003 Gross National Income. That's about 15 cents for every $100 America earns. Such an amount is pathetic when compared to other nations. Canada gives 0.24%, Germany 0.28%, Switzerland 0.39%, Sweden 0.79% and Norway 0.92%.

In terms of amount, America gives more than anyone. But in terms of percentage, America gives less than anyone. Italy, at 0.17% and Japan and Austria, at 0.20%, are the next worst offenders.

So while other western nations are generous, America is not. But this is supposed to be the land of philanthropy, of charity and goodwill. Yet it doesn't matter what people believe, the statistics tell otherwise - America is Uncle Scrooge.

The other problem with Kristof's article is that he criticises many nations for their unacceptable social problems. Infant mortality rates, school enrolments and so on - Kristof criticises developing nations for their problem in this area.

The first thing I'd like to say about this point is that these nations may have had much better social conditions if they had received more overseas aid - aid that America is not providing.

The second thing I'd like to say about this is that America itself is not exactly the world's leader when it comes to these same social statistics. It's now safer to be born in Cuba than in the US according to latest infant mortality statistics. About 20% of Americans lack functional literacy skills, compared to less than 10% in places like Sweden, Norway and Denmark. 17% of American wage earners earn less than 50% of median income, compared to 5.4% in Finland, 8% in Belgium and 7.3% in The Netherlands.

All these statistics show that nations which have instituted more widespread social welfare programs are likely to have better social conditions for its citizens. These "tax and spend" measures have given people a better quality of life than anywhere else in the world - including rich America. While it may be an integral part of the American psyche to promote the idea of a self-made individual (which thus reduces the desire for social welfare spending), the simple facts are that government-sponsored programs that intervene in the lives of people for their benefit produce a better standard of living.

In many cases, not only is the standard of living better, but the finances are better too. The best example of this is the Report's section on Health Spending. The combined level of private and public spending on health in the US represents 14.6% of GDP. This can be compared to 9.6% in Norway, 9.7% in France, 9.6% in Canada and 10.9% in Germany. Yet despite the huge sums spent by the American health industry, HIV rates are worse than every other western nation except Spain. The Infant Mortality Rate shows that 6.5 American children die for every 1000 babies born. Compare that to 5.1 in the European Union and 2.77 in Sweden. That's a lot of American babies who die.

The implications of these facts are simple - America is exceptionally good at creating wealth, but exceptionally bad at using that wealth to create a better life for its citizens. Moreover, the alternative offered by the Social market economies of Western Europe, along with their greater generosity to poorer nations, gives them a growing influence in world affairs.

The answer is not for America to divert attention by trashing other nations, as Nicholas Kristof has done. Instead, America must learn to swallow its pride and make pragmatic decisions so that its own citizens may prosper.

There are many nations around this globe who have learned a lot from America - economically and socially. Many Asian nations are prosperous today because of the lessons they have learned from America over the years. Surely the time has come for America to start learning from others?

From the Department of Wha's Happnin?

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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