What should the United States do in the Third World, where there's too much to do and too much that can't be done?

WE are all wringing our hands over the plight of failing, unstable regions of the Third World, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. But there is little consensus on what the American response should be. Many liberals blame the West and racism for the Third
proport picture World's ills, and believe that democracy and foreign-aid programs can defeat historical, cultural, and environmental forces that have been at work for centuries. Some conservatives think that the free market is the answer to everyone's problems; other conservatives think that even a display of interest in a place like Africa indicates naive do-goodism. At one extreme is Pat Buchanan, at the Mexican border with a gun and a black cowboy hat, holding off the tide of darker peoples. At the other extreme is Mrs. Jellyby, in Dickens's Bleak House, whose eyes "could see nothing nearer than Africa!" Mrs. Jellyby let her London household go to ruin while she wrote letters all day in support of a tribe on the Niger River. Caught among the various mindsets are well-meaning Washington bureaucrats who are trying to craft workable policies on global humanitarian issues.

A durable foreign-aid consensus--one that might do gradual but unmistakable good where good can in fact be done--must be built on two seemingly contrary realizations:

* Although some human societies have made end runs around their own histories and environments, exceptionalism is, well, the exception. The fact that Africa continues to fall economically behind the Indian subcontinent (the second poorest region on the planet), despite billions spent on development assistance over the decades, amounts to an inescapable negative judgment. Not even Russia, with its 150 million people, 99 percent of whom are literate, can be pivotally affected by aid. To think that aid can fundamentally change sub-Saharan Africa, whose population is 3.75 times that of Russia and whose literacy rate is much, much lower, is to take a position that few people outside a narrow intellectual elite will accept. As our own historically high economic-growth rates fall, it is not even clear that American exceptionalism can be counted on: we will have less money in the future for foreign aid, not more.

* Although development assistance rarely changes history dramatically, it can do significant good in a significant number of places. And it can do good in ways that help us to reinvent ourselves as a nation in the context of a more interconnected world, while also promoting vital security interests. A growing African middle class, for instance, would constitute an enormous market for American products. An Africa in which viruses could be monitored and controlled would preserve AIDS as a singularity rather than a harbinger of more pandemics. Given that disease is affected by poverty, migration, and environmental trends, helping Africa is strategically important if only in terms of cold self-interest.

* * *

A development policy toward the underdeveloped world must have the ability to win political support in Washington and the nation at large. This is a simple fact that no amount of idealism or wishful thinking can get around. A development policy must engage us without overstraining us. Its criteria must be clear. And it must not set us up for failure. Expensive stunts like the invasions of Somalia and Haiti are risky in the context of an isolationist-tending climate of political discourse. If such endeavors fail, they threaten funding for useful programs in politically and economically fragile places where hope survives.

Herein is a rough sketch for a Third World aid policy. It is inspired in some measure by the principle known as proportionalism, adopted by some Catholic theologians on certain vexing moral issues. Proportionalism provides a useful moral approach to the Third World. In theological terms proportionalism is about doing or accepting a certain amount of "evil" to make possible a proportionately greater amount of good; it underlies theories of a just war and also, for some Catholics, the argument in favor of promoting the use of contraceptives as a means of reducing abortion. In everyday, non-theological terms it is about beating a retreat in order to preserve what is most important. Proportionalism is anathema to moral and ideological purists. It tempers implacable principle with common sense.

Foreign-aid proportionalism would have three aspects: the aid itself, early warning, and extremely rare interventions. What follows is a framework for disparate ideas and policies that have been bruited about and in some cases partly implemented.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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