Not A Day Goes By

U. R. Romano/ Ivory Coast

U. R. Romano/ Ivory Coast

Not a day goes by that my Inbox doesn't have a story about human suffering in some corner of the world; droughts in northern Africa, refugees fleeing civil war, children dying from HIV and other preventable diseases, hunger and malnutrition taking a toll on one third of the world's populace. In each case, human need dwarfs the international community's willingness or capacity to respond. Our responses to disaster vary widely. Some appeals for funds fall on nearly deaf ears, others produce a tidal wave of pledges.

The sheer number and frequency of natural disasters seems to take a toll on global generosity.

In 2002, recognizing that human suffering was a shared obligation, over 50 heads of state and representatives from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, adopted the Monterrey Consensus- a pledge to commit .07% (that's seven tenths of one per cent) of their gross domestic income for the purpose of alleviating global poverty. Since then, three American Presidents have reaffirmed the United States commitment to that level of ODA (Official Development Assistance) and the global community undertook the Millennium Campaign to meet 8 time bound goals to reduce poverty (the MDG's) by 2015- all driven by the assumption that the funding pledged would materialize, which it simply did not.

Because of this lack of funding, many of those MDG targets were not met, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, where the number of people living in poverty has actually increased. As of November 2015, we have a new 15 year U.N. program called The Sustainable Development Campaign that also is without adequate core funding. Meanwhile, millions of people, more than half women and children, struggle without adequate food, medicine, shelter, clean water, education or even basic safety.

U. R. Romano / Kenya

U.R. Romano/ Kenya

Since the UN adopted the MDG's in 2000, funding has always lagged significantly with less than 50% of the pledged monies actually being committed. If we're going to help end poverty, reduce the spread of deadly diseases, compensate for climate change, cut hunger and malnutrition and educate millions who've never set foot in a classroom- how exactly are we to do that without a reliable source of funds?

Well for one thing, governments have lots of demands for money in their own countries, feeding poor people on the other side of the world can be a hard sell politically. In the U.S., AID appropriations are often cut or delayed as they move through the required Congressional spending gauntlet and the story repeats itself in most of the major donor countries. In fact, only a handful of Scandinavian countries has met their pledge of .07% the rest lag behind. Currently, the United States contributes about a quarter of our actual commitment, that's about two tenths of one per cent.

The American public greatly overestimates the amount of foreign aid we do give. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans believe we hand out money like water, perhaps as much as 15-20% of our federal budget but the real numbers tell a different story.

American aid figures are often distorted by military expenditures to war zones. Top U.S. aid recipients are Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel and Pakistan. Aid is further complicated by in-kind contributions, particularly food, which can undercut a poor country's capacity to support their own farmers by flooding a country with our surplus. Meanwhile, American farmers are paid price supports to produce those surpluses and an industry shipping that grain has developed, dependent on our global generosity to survive.

U. R. Romano/ Mexico

U. R. Romano/ Mexico

Projects to alleviate poverty are sought after enterprises. A small handful of qualified beltway vendors manages American aid in its many forms and profits from charging their overhead many times over. The argument goes that using U.S. contractors as conduits for our aid assures the efficacy and transparency of the programs. Unfortunately, the cut they take in overhead and operating expenses can leave very little of taxpayer money for the poor. Ethicist Peter Singer, whose work focuses on public and private philanthropy, estimated that perhaps five cents of every aid dollar makes its way to the street after the aid industry is finished deducting overhead costs, travel and salaries.

Two web sites are particularly useful in learning about the complex world of humanitarian aid; Relief Web reports news and global developments while Financial Tracking Service allows you to create customized reports to examine aid flows to specific countries. I've spent many hours at each of these sites and keep arriving at the same conclusion, no matter the country, disaster or humanitarian appeal literally all of them are underfunded. In some cases, the response is non-existent with appeals made to no avail. Perhaps you can only shout ' FIRE' so many times and expect help from your rich neighbors.

Sometimes the stories I read report the by-products of poverty; children working in gold mines in West Africa or on cocoa plantations, children mining silver and gold in the mountains of Peru, outbreaks of disease in Africa and the steady drumbeat of children dying from HIV at the rate of a half million a year. Meanwhile, other silent emergencies beckon, tens of millions of street children fending for themselves, 14 million children orphaned by the HIV pandemic, one child in three hungry around the world.

U.R. Romano/ India

U.R. Romano/ India


What we've witnessed in the past few years is a further retreat from foreign aid as countries struggle to bail out their own economies. Rising unemployment and economic stagnation have pushed hundreds of millions of people back into extreme poverty while the prices of basic food commodities like rice, corn and oil have tripled due to a combination of increased demand and speculation. Pope Francis has referred to our modern economy as immoral and our response to the needs of others as "the globalization of indifference".

Passing the hat for foreign aid doesn't work. Aid allocations will always be subject to local politics and economic pressures and will be among the first to be cut.

Aid is often duplicative. We need a global system to centralize the data about how and where the money is spent, allowing us to track everything from emergency goods in regional warehouses to the ongoing distribution of food and medicine.

Aid shouldn't be a profit center for any sector or a white- collar career for over-paid consultants. We need to examine how our aid is delivered and do a better job of overseeing the process.

FTT is an acronym you may already be familiar with, it stands for financial transactions tax. Simply put, a growing number of economists, governments and organizations believe that a tiny tax on financial transactions (stock and bond sales, currency exchange, derivatives, futures and commodity trades) could produce the funds we need, each year and every year, meet the unmet needs of children around the world.

The International Monetary Fund has issued a staff report on implementing such a levy and found that it can be done and that the financial sector is basically under-taxed. Many people have the attitude that it was the bankers that got us into this mess and they should pay their fair share to help clean up their mess. The profits the financial sector continue to generate and the inflated compensation they pay themselves may have something to do with why some folks now call FTT the "Robin Hood Tax".

At present, there's not a lot of enthusiasm for the idea in the US or UK- a reflection of the enormous power of the financial sector. Even so, it appears that ten European Union countries, with the conservative support of Germany and France, are moving forward with a tax that will yield over 100 billion Euros a year in 2017.  Not all of that money will be dedicated to helping end global poverty but the next discussion will be about exactly that, how to divvy it up.

U. R. Romano/ Indonesia

U. R. Romano/ Indonesia

Putting the needs of the world's poor at the center of our financial system makes sense as a way to supplement the most basic of human exchanges, helping someone who needs that help, especially when 60% of the world's poor are women and children. After twenty years of reporting on these issues, it's clear to me that there are no simple solutions- we are in a generational conflict to end child labor, educate children and make the world a better and safer place. Getting at poverty will take a reliable source of money, demand and human need for aid has far outstripped what governments are able to take from their taxpayers. We need new and innovative ways to fund the work ahead and the financial transactions tax looks like it can be one of the innovative tools to get us where we need to go.