Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

O'Neill on Safari with Bono

James Skillen


June 3, 2002

By any calculation, it is remarkable that U.S. treasury secretary Paul O'Neill is traveling throughout Africa with Irish rock star Bono at a time when the attention of most Americans is focused on domestic concerns or on the Middle East, NATO and Russia, and India and Pakistan.

President Bush wants Congress to establish a $5 billion Millennium Challenge Account to support developing countries that are democratic and invest in education and health care. Secretary O'Neill is evidently assessing how that money can best be spent. Whether or not O'Neill arrives at meaningful answers or learns what Bono and many African leaders want him to learn, the symbolism of his trip is significant.

Yet symbolism in politics always raises the question: real or fake, deep or shallow, promising or misleading? The president's commitment to a new foreign aid account and O'Neill's commitment to real jobs, education, and health care seem genuine. But let's connect some dots.

O'Neill and Bono have been arguing about how best to target aid funds. Should more go to treatment of AIDS patients or to prevention efforts? Should more go to well-digging for clean water or to education to promote jobs? However, there is a prior and deeper question: What is the international context in which foreign aid has a role to play?

Consider the following numbers. President Bush is asking $5 billion more for promising developing countries. Total foreign aid from rich countries to Africa last year was $14.6 billion. U.S. federal subsidies to American farmers over the next 10 years will come to about $20 billion annually, and those subsidies will, by their very nature, hinder the export capabilities of African and other developing countries. If Africans could increase their exports by one percentage point (1%) of total world exports, they would generate $70 billion of new income, says Oxfam International. In other words, the hard-working, self-supporting stability the U.S. says it wants for poor countries will be undermined in part by the agricultural subsidies that Congress and the president are upholding as they speak out of two sides of their mouths. The likely outcome will be a need for increased foreign aid to African countries who cannot meet their own needs. Which will lead to a new round of accusations in the United States that foreign aid doesn't work and that we should reduce it.

Great symbolism! No wonder that South Africa is asking the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, which it will host in August, to focus on trade and development issues. Foreign aid is one small help; debt relief is another. But real help, say the leaders of many poorer countries and development agencies, will come when their countries can sell their own goods on world markets in fair competition.

When O'Neill gets back to Washington, he should sit down with the secretaries of State and Commerce and the president to tell them that $5 billion is nice purse change but that real help for Africa will come from ending selfish protectionist policies, getting our wealthiest farmers off welfare, and encouraging long-term and sustainable job growth in Africa.

O'Neill might borrow a line from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, who wrote on May 28 (Washington Post) that the next stage of welfare reform "calls for helping those just entering the workforce to become more stable in the workforce." On the world stage, the president and Congress want developing countries to move off the "welfare" of rich countries, but instead of helping to create stability for the people of those countries as they find new employment opportunities, we are pulling the rug out from underneath them and fostering greater instability. It's despicable if not criminal.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”