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USA Today Op-Ed: Inequitable Resources, Benefits Put World at Risk

By Jimmy Carter

This op-ed was published in the Feb. 16, 2004, issue of USA TODAY.

The most serious and universal problem facing the world today is the growing chasm between the richest and poorest people on earth. Yet our political candidates and current leaders are failing to address this as both a moral concern and a national security priority. The war on terror cannot be won unless we devote more effort to equitably sharing resources and meeting social and economic needs worldwide.

Today, citizens of the 10 wealthiest countries are at least 75 times richer than those who live in the 10 poorest ones, and the chasm is widening. This extreme poverty is linked intricately to a wider web of problems, including terrorism, economic instability and disease.

The problems of extreme poverty can seem incredibly remote, even unreal. We are a nation of unprecedented bounty and a society bombarded by media images of health, affluence and success, where the average household earns well above $ 100 a day. In contrast, 1.3 billion people, more than one-fifth of humanity, will try to survive this day on less than $ 1.

Rosalynn and I were just in Mali on business for the Carter Center's project to assist Malians with development planning. Mali is one of the 10 poorest nations in the world, with 91% of its citizens living on less than $ 2 per day. The illiteracy rate is 59%, and the infant mortality rate is 126 per 1,000.

A nation of farmers, Mali cannot get ahead because exorbitant cotton subsidies for mega-farms in the U.S. cost Mali far more than all its aid from rich nations. Malians produced more cotton last year than any other African country, and it is their No. 1 export, but they had to sell it at little or no profit to compete with the heavily subsidized U.S. crop. In a global economy, U.S. policies reverberate widely.

Hope despite poverty

People who live in grave poverty are just as intelligent, creative and hardworking as you or I. They love their children just as much, and they have the same hopes that those children will live healthy, productive, meaningful lives. In my travels to 120 countries, I have been constantly inspired by their courage and faith, their judgment and wisdom and their accomplishments when given a chance to use their innate abilities.

But the world's wealthy nations have demonstrated a tragic lack of concern for those enduring lives of extreme poverty. For example, although the USA ranks first in gross domestic product, it ranks last among the world's 22 richest nations in the percentage of GDP it provides in financial assistance to developing nations.

The increases in AIDS funding and the new Millennium Challenge Account included in President Bush's 2005 budget request are steps in the right direction, but do not go nearly far enough -- and come at the expense of other vital humanitarian and development programs. Our contribution must increase greatly if we are to face the challenge of global poverty with any real hope of success.

Private aid, also

Part of the answer also lies in a growing number of private efforts. For example, Better Safer World, a non-governmental coalition formed in the aftermath of 9/11, is working to educate Americans on the root causes of poverty. The nine-member coalition, which includes CARE, Oxfam America and World Vision, has called for the U.S. to commit at least 1% of its annual budget to global humanitarian and development assistance and to grant debt relief to poor nations, which would free large sums for humanitarian purposes.

These are important steps, but the battle against extreme poverty -- and, by extension, against terrorism, economic instability and disease -- can be waged successfully only with strong leadership from our government and our next president. The people are leading the way: A recent poll in Iowa found that a majority of those certain to vote in the 2004 general election want the U.S. to commit more economic and humanitarian aid to the war on global poverty.

I hope the candidates, including President Bush, begin to address fully not only the unacceptable inequalities in education, health care and opportunity here at home, but also the need to alleviate the even more gross disparities and suffering beyond our borders. World peace hangs in the balance.

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter is chair of The Carter Center, a not-for-profit organization advancing peace and health worldwide.

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