On Point: "Micro-development" Offers New Hope in Third World Countries


by Austin Bay

It's a deceptive estimate, but nevertheless an estimate with toomany zeros to ignore.

Since 1950, America and its allies have spent a cool trillion inU.S. dollars on anti-poverty and economic programs in poor and developingnations. Even though it's over a five decade span, that's a stack of taxdollars -- from plumbers, school teachers, you, me -- dedicated to improvingthe economic and social conditions of this planet's impoverished, ill andstarving.

Let's first deal with the deceptive component of the cash pile.World War II didn't quite end. Instead of fading, the front lines froze inCentral Europe, producing the Cold War -- a military, economic and politicalsiege engaging Soviet East and Allied West.

The Truman and Eisenhower administrations saw "foreign aid" as astrategic weapon. Aid dollars -- for food, for basic infrastructure, forindustrial development -- could fortify weak nations vulnerable to Sovietintrigue. Propping up the economy of a nation targeted by a Soviet-backed"liberation front" made strategic sense, politically and, yes, militarily.

Money could also buy other forms of "strategic influence," likethe support of Third World elites. Who dared call it bribery, if the checkcame from the U.S. Treasury?

But when dealing with local autocrats, the potentates andpresidents-for-life in the hard corners of post-colonial Africa, South andCentral America, and Asia, Washington and the West didn't stress financialaccountability. If money thwarted Soviet subversion, or bought a U.N. vote,that sufficed.

Gobs of developmental aid, gurgling through corrupt Third Worldautocracies, became personal deposits in Swiss bank accounts. Of course, aidwasn't the only source of cash for the various Mobutus, Suhartos, andMugabes -- endemic corruption stunted business development and sappednon-governmental aid. Imagine Enron and Global Crossing as being thenational government (with regulatory and police power), as well as secretivebusiness enterprises. The term "banana republic" provides a fruit logo forthe condition. "Kleptocracy" -- rule by systemic thieves -- is the gutdescription.

So that's part of the cool trillion's trail. Scads of it waswasted or purloined. What did the remainder buy, or not buy? Let's pick onAfrica for a moment, because the stats there are so chilling. Expected lifespans in Africa are no longer now than they were in 1960. Yes, AIDs is oneterrible reason, but African incomes have also failed to increase.

With such dismal failures in the foreground, the U.N.-sponsoredInternational Conference on Financing for Development, held this week inMonterrey, Mexico, seeks to reach what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan hascalled "a new global deal" for aid and trade in the post-Cold War era. It'sa U.N. conference where jargon actually connects to real-world issues. Onthe table are economic incentives for addressing social issues (such asteen-age pregnancy) that hinder economic empowerment. Poor nations arediscussing market-oriented reforms and promising to confront the paralysisof corruption. The "debt burden" is on the table, with the poor asking fordebt reductions from the wealthy. Yes, debt from past abuses beggars thefuture. Expect "targeted" debt reduction (e.g., debt "exchanged" foreliminating corrupt practices) to occur.

However, recalculating "macro-economic" and political policiesis only part of the new approach. In so many hard corners, hydroelectricdams and bad debt aren't the most pivotal development issues -- it's humaneconomic expertise.

Enter the hottest buzz in developmental aid -- micro-finance andmicro-development. "Micro-development" is a less grandiose, thoughdemonstrably effective means for helping build the "local humaninfrastructure" necessary to support positive, long-term economic growth.

Mexican President Vicente Fox supports "micro-development" in amajor way, but the most effective "micro" proponents aren't governments butreligious and secular organizations.

"Micros" focus on direct aid that circumvents corrupt systems.The Grameen Bank is an exemplary "micro" advocate. Grameen provideseconomically creative individuals and communities with low-cost loans andadvice. Grameen addresses the literally down and dirty issues that hinderdevelopment. Loan recipients learn to site and dig outhouses so water isn'tpolluted. Grameen also emphasizes individual accountability and integrity.Five Talents, a U.S.-based group associated with the Episcopal Church, isanother "micro" advocate working in Africa and Asia.

Changes wrought by "micros" may be small, but they are victoriesof verifiable substance and build a human base for "macro-development"success. Micro mounts up. Grameen estimates its projects have added 1percent to Bangladesh's GDP. They accomplished this with small loans and thesweat of local people motivated by genuine opportunity.

While the frittered trillion isn't chump change, these new, creative approaches offer something more precious: hope.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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