In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama pledged to address extreme poverty worldwide. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)
This is the first of what I expect will be four or five blog posts written from Dar es Salaam and Morogoro, Tanzania. I'm visiting Tanzania thanks to CARE USA, which has paid for my trip with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its purpose, for me at least, is to explore one country's need for humanitarian aid and development assistance and to examine America's political will and commitment to deliver on its promises.
Here, in Tanzania, is a perfect place to find out what President Obama has to do to put his money—or rather, yours and mine—where his mouth is, and whether he truly has the political will. Specifically, whether an American president with direct family roots in Kenya, Tanzania’s neighbor to the north, really means it when he says that one of the goals of his second term in the White House will be to uplift the poor, the sick and the hungry in the developing countries.
Here’s how Obama put it in the January 21 inaugural address, speaking about America’s role in the world:
And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice—not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
Then, during his State of the Union speech, Obama elaborated:
We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power and educate themselves; by saving the world's children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.
To “eradicate…extreme poverty in the next two decades” is a tall task, indeed. But it’s one worth doing, and it’s not really expensive. For decades, however, US efforts in that direction have been mostly talk. Ever since President John F. Kennedy sounded a similar stirring call and created agencies such as the Agency for International Development (now USAID), the United States has woefully shirked the task. During the Cold War, if it did anything at all, it used cash to try to buy the allegiance of the nonaligned countries, usually with little success. And after the Cold War, the United States pretty much forgot about the world overseas, at least until 9/11. Political support for foreign aid in its current, stingy form is almost nonexistent, and it will take a sustained effort by President Obama to build a political coalition in favor of what’s needed, namely, a massive expansion of development assistance, humanitarian relief and efforts to finance improvements in infrastructure, schools, hospitals and clinics, and more.