Over the past 20 years the global poverty rate has been cut in half, a reduction that appears substantial at first glance. The harsh reality is that more than 1 billion people (over 14% of the world’s population) continue to live in destitution, a moral abomination of the highest order considering the money and resources of the wealthiest nations.

The U.S. has been particularly negligent in its committed foreign aid donation of 0.7% of Gross National Product (GNP), the amount the richest UN member states agreed to donate as Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries. The U.S. is often the largest contributor of ODA in terms of dollars, but in 2011 the U.S. ranked among the lowest contributors of ODA as a percentage of GNP, only giving 0.2% while Sweden gave an impressive 1.02%. Why is one of the wealthiest nations falling behind in its humanitarian efforts?

The war on terror, particularly in Afghanistan, indicates a pattern: Situations must become a matter of national security before the U.S. will consider serious intervention and global poverty has yet to meet this criteria. Traditionally, poor states posed less of a military threat than wealthier states, but the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States of America stated, “America is now threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones.”

What the U.S. must acknowledge is the likely symptom of poverty: violent conflict. Violent conflict can quickly drag down a developing country’s weak government, making room for the harboring of illegal groups and activities. As a result, potential new threats to U.S. national security in the form of terrorism, organized crime, and the trafficking of drugs, arms, or people will arise.

In the 1990s, 35 of the 46 states deemed “fragile” by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) were in conflict. According to the DFID’s estimate, these states account for over 30% of the people living on less than $1 a day. On average, ODA is the largest financial flow in fragile states, however the assistance has a decreasing impact due to growing populations.

It is in the best interest of the U.S. to contribute the committed amount of ODA. The U.S. is fertilizing the growth of potential threats through negligence in its ODA contributions. An increase in poverty in a fragile country will likely contribute to an increase in violent conflict that could become so severe it threatens at least U.S. interests, if not the very safety of its own citizens. It would not be the first time.

– Scarlet Shelton

Sources: Economist, World Bank, OECD, Global Issues, UN Millennium Project
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