Commentary: World forum in Korea aims to improve aid

BUSAN, Korea — Three thousand leaders from 160 countries went to Busan, Korea, last week to hammer out a new way to improve the delivery of foreign aid to billions of people around the world trapped in poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance and the other cancers of underdevelopment.

As in three previous such meetings held since 1998, the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness stumbled on deciding who speaks for the poor, will rich donors or poor recipients decide what kind of aid to get, will newly-rich Third World donor countries such as China accept the new rules, and will poverty ever be conquered.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stopped off here Wednesday en route to her diplomatic opening with Burma and she challenged China, without naming it, by warning developing nations that some donors want to use aid to grab resources rather than help the poor countries.

“Developing countries also need to be smart shoppers,” she said in the keynote address Nov. 30. “Be wary of donors who are more interested in extracting your resources than building your capacity.”

China has recently been using its new and growing foreign aid and investments to build infrastructure so it can buy up minerals, timber, fuel, other resources and land to grow food for itself. It also gives aid as loans rather than grants. It recently suffered a major humiliation when Burma cancelled a Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy River that would have been built by 20,000 Chinese workers; and then sent 90 percent of the electricity to China.

Despite vast, continuing poverty, hunger and disease, foreign aid has achieved a lot in the past two decades, said the Forum organizers in an introductory video:

-- 400 million less people live in extreme poverty.

--African children in school rose from 58 percent to 76 percent.

-- four million fewer children die before the age of five.

--hundreds of millions get life-saving treatment for AIDS, TB and malaria.

--1.8 billion people have access to drinking water.

But many people remain untouched by aid, education modern science or decent living conditions, especially the 1.5 billion people living in fragile and conflict-affected countries.

Foreign aid has a long reputation for being used politically – beefing up anti-communist allies in the Cold War and opening the Third World to buy American products. Up to $4 billion a year in U.S. aid still goes to Egypt and Israel to support their peace accord.

In recent years the U.S. aid program has tried to distance itself from that legacy and apply aid where it is most needed and can be most effective. However vast sums of aid – billions of dollars per year – have been directed since 2002 to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to support U.S. military interests as well as aid those in need.

Foreign aid has grown enormously in the past two decades, reaching a new high of $130 billion in 2010, said officials of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which organized the forum.

Foreign aid also has become a major industry with perhaps one million employees worldwide, many of them without pensions, vacations, or health care, often living in poor and insecure places around the world.

U.S. foreign aid has grown since 9/11 to more than $20 billion a year – the largest single donor. But this is dwarfed by European and European Union aid totaling $60 billion in 2010. And all foreign aid is dwarfed by a total of more than $ 1 trillion sent to developing countries by Diaspora communities, private foundations, church groups, trade and private investors.

The additional entry of China, India and Brazil as donors dilutes still further the U.S. influence in this field. The commitment the Obama administration gives to foreign aid remains strong despite the current economic crisis and Republican efforts to cut aid.

OECD leader Angel Gurria admitted he is seriously concerned that foreign aid will be cut.

“I’m worried aid will be reduced due to the crisis,” he said. “If anything, countries today need more support.” He warned that if wealthy nations reduce aid, then there will be less demand for their exports.

At the forum, critics complained that to try and get the new donors such as China to abide by new aid rules, the final document watered down commitments to human rights and democracy.

Better Aid, a group of non-government groups working for transparency and foreign aid, said it could not endorse the consensus because of the watering down of democracy as a principle of aid and the lack of sufficient input by what are called Civil Society groups or non-governmental organizations – although some 300 of them attended the forum.

To accommodate the China-India-Brazil bloc, the final document of the conference said the “principles, commitments and actions” approved at Busan will apply “for South-South partners on a voluntary basis.” South-South refers to formerly-poor countries helping those still poor.

The forum did agree that all aid donors and recipients must be transparent – they must tell their own people and the media and general public how much aid is given and to what projects. Ben Phillips, an official with Save the Children, a British-based charity, said “transparency in aid ... would be equivalent to an additional $3 billion” because it would harder to conceal the theft of aid funds by corrupt officials.

A senior OECD official said the conference was “an honest conversation of what and what was not achieved” since the previous forum, held in Accra, Ghana.

The OECD’s Development Assistance Committee reported several weeks before the forum that a survey of aid donors showed they had failed to meet 12 of the 13 goals for effective aid adopted by the previous forums in Paris and Ghana. However none of the goals have been dropped and the new document aims to move forward on achieving them.

The goals include:

— Continue to untie aid so poor countries can get the most bang for their buck rather than be forced to spend it in the donor country.

— Fight fragmenting of aid so that poor countries don’t have to deal with twenty or thirty donors – each with its own reporting demands.

— Help achieve the Millennium Development goals by 2015, reducing infant mortality and improving other aspects of life.

— Let poor countries decide what kinds of aid programs to undertake, not the donors. This is called “country-ownership.”

Another achievement of the conference was a plan to improve aid to states so fragile and insecure that they are unable to manage assistance.

A senior OECD official said that even the selection of Busan was significant. Formerly called Pusan, the city was the last region of South Korea to resist the communist invasion of 1950. U.S., South Korean and other U.N. forces fought and died here before troop reinforcements arrived to push the North Korean and Chinese invaders back.

After the war ended in 1953, South Korea was a wrecked and impoverished nation with per capita income of $67. After $60 billion in U.S. foreign aid – and through the hard working efforts of Koreans themselves – Korea today has the 13th largest economy in the world. Busan is the world’s fifth largest port with thousands of trucks hauling containers from the many ships at its docks.

Korean President Lee Myung-bak told the conference Korea could be a model for developing countries – it graduated from aid and now gives $1 billion in aid to poor countries. He recalled as a child drinking milk and eating food from containers marked with the symbol American aid – clasped hands.

Gurria, of the OECD, said at the closing of the forum that “we took stock at Busan, we deliberated and discussed and agreed and we’ll be the better for it.”


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at benbarber2@hotmail.com.

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.