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Investing in Children Will Ensure the Marines Won't Need to Return

By Jimmy Carter

Published by the Los Angeles Times.

We all watched as the Marines landed on the beaches of east Africa, greeted by network anchors and scores of exhausted relief workers. For the moment, at least, distant Mogadishu has found its way onto the front page and into our kitchen table conversation.

All of this could have been avoided. This is not to say that the U.S. mission in Somalia is not worthwhile; it may be the only way to prevent more than a million Somalis from starving to death. But there is a lesson to be learned from Somalia, and we might have averted tragedy by learning it sooner.

We cannot ignore the problems that plague so many African countries - war, poverty, disease - and hope that they will go away quietly. Congress had the chance earlier this year to approve $11 million for emergency food aid to Somalia as part of the omnibus foreign-aid bill that did not pass the Senate.

The obvious questions are these: How do we address these problems? How do we break Africa's cycle of underdevelopment and armed conflict? How can we overcome political opposition to foreign assistance?

We begin by meeting the basic needs of children, the next generation of Africans. We can build stability by providing them with the health care, nutrition, clean water and education that all children should be able to take for granted.

There is a misconception here and in other countries that it would be all but impossible to provide these basic services for a continent of impoverished children.

First, not all Africans are poor. In fact, Africa as a whole has made steady progress and only recently began sliding back into poverty, largely because of falling commodity prices, arms build-ups and foreign debt. The sooner we get serious about meeting the continent's basic needs, the easier the task will be.

Second, the cost of such a venture is not prohibitive. In its annual State of the World's Children report, released this month, the United Nations Children's Fund estimates that, using existing technologies, it would take $25 billion a year to meet the basic needs of children everywhere by the year 2000. That may sound like a lot of money, but it's not. It's actually less than Americans will spend on beer this year, and less than the seven major economic powers gave to Russia in a single aid package.

Most of the required annual funding can come from existing aid sources and from the developing countries themselves. We can now put a price tag on eliminating mass malnutrition and preventable diseases, thus fostering a more stable environment in Africa and elsewhere.

According to UNICEF, less than 10 percent of all international aid is currently allocated to meeting the most basic human needs. A restructuring of that aid to give basic needs a higher priority would defray the overall cost significantly. Further, developing countries now spend little more than 10 percent of their budgets on basic needs, in part because of weapons purchases and payments on their foreign debts.

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa now owe about $150 billion to foreign leaders, and their interest payments each year amount to more than they receive in aid. By releasing African countries from the unreasonable burden of their debts, we could ensure the ability of those countries to invest more in the basic needs of their children.

There really is no reason, then, why we can't begin now to build a better future in Africa. There is no reason for us to have to witness or grapple with another Somalia.

Many Americans will say that it is high time we confront our own crises here at home, and they are right. But the United States can afford to invest in people here and abroad-investments that will pay rich dividends. We must heed the valuable lesson of Somalia - that our efforts to solve our own problems will ultimately be undermined, and millions of people will suffer, if we insist on putting off until tomorrow what we can do today.

We should not have to call in the Marines to save lives in Africa again. The time for non-military intervention is now.

Former President Jimmy Carter is actively involved in conflict resolution, democratization and human-rights efforts in Africa through The Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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