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Our Obligation To The World

By Paul Buchheit

27 June, 2007

President Bush recently stated, "We have accepted our obligations to defend society from extremists and terrorists."

30,000 people die every day from hunger and disease, 10 times more than the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Over 18,000 children die every day, mostly from hunger. They die from malaria because they can't afford mosquito nets. They die from diarrhea because they don't have clean water. They die from accidents in African mines, where they're forced to work in the heat and toxic dust for 70 hours a week. These are extreme conditions. These people are living in terror. This is happening every day.

But what can WE do about it? Foreign aid doesn't work in poverty- stricken African countries. The money doesn't go to the people who need it. Countries like Nigeria and Chad and the Congo are cursed with great supplies of oil, diamonds, and other commodities needed by the rich world, and their corrupt governments effectively rent their nations out to the highest bidders. The immense profits enrich the governments and the corporate elite. The inflow of dollars artificially inflates the local currency, and as a result local agricultural and manufactured products cost more and imports cost less. There is less motivation to continue traditional businesses. Many farmers and merchants and tradespeople look for jobs with the multinational companies, many of them American, who have taken control of their nations resources. In Nigeria, agriculture as a percentage of exports decreased from 81% in 1960 to 2% today.

With windfall incomes and less of a tax base, governments of developing countries have less need to collect taxes. They spend their money on military protection against the very people who used to provide support.

Humanitarian aid groups have learned that people don't prosper with aid money. This is why the Millennium Villages project encourages self- sufficiency among village residents, and why microfinancing rewards people who start their own businesses. Corporate leaders insist that capitalism and free trade will eventually empower impoverished countries, if only they'll open their markets. But agricultural subsidies in Europe and America make this an impossibility. Farmers in Africa cannot compete with cheap corn and rice and cotton from our subsidized farms. And, of course, our never-ending need for oil ensures that Black Gold will remain a curse in countries like Nigeria. We are not about to give up our lifestyles; it's easier to blame corrupt governments.

And what about those lifestyles of ours? We say that the spread of democracy will allow everyone to live like us. But with 5% of the world's population we consume 25% of the world's resources. If everyone in the world consumed at the U.S. rate we would need five planet earths to sustain us.

We demand oil and spend more and more extracting it from other countries, even though the cost of alternative energies is rapidly going down. The cost of wind power has decreased from $2 per KWH to 5- 8 cents per KWH in the last 30 years, and the cost of solar power in 2004 was 1/7 of an equivalent system in the 1970s. Experience in other countries shows that economies of scale can further reduce the price.

No, aid doesn't work very well. The problem goes much deeper. Our way of life depends on a continuation of the economic and energy policies that keep billions of people in poverty. But if it's true that economies of scale will reduce our alternative energy costs, it may just be a matter of transfering money from war expenses to alternative energy research, and letting good old American ingenuity take over. This may be our only hope. And Africa's.

Paul Buchheit is Professor at Harold Washington College and Founder of Global Initiative Chicago (
Email: [email protected]

1 "Bush talks of freedom as he ends trip," Chicago Tribune, June 12, 2007

2 "Global Call to Action Against Poverty," Oxfam International, 2006 (

3 "18,000 children die every day of hunger, U.N. says," USA Today, 2/17/2007

4 "Structural re-adjustment in Nigeria: diagnosis of a severe Dutch disease syndrome," by Fidel Ezeala-Harrison, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, April, 1993

5 John Ghazvinian, "Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil"
(Harcourt, 2007)

6 "Nigeria," Blacknet UK, accessed June 2007

7 United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural
Service, June 12, 2007

8 "State of the World 2006: China and India Hold World in Balance," January 11, 2006

9 "World Economy Giving Less to Poorest in Spite of Global Poverty,"
New Economics Foundation, January 23, 2006

10 "Sunlit uplands: Wind and solar power are flourishing, thanks to
subsidies," The Economist, June 2, 2007

11 "Research, Solar Cell Production and Market Implementation in Japan, USA and the European Union," European Commission Joint Research Centre, 2003

12 "Renewable Energy Evolution in Belgium 1974 - 2025" Belgian Science
Policy, June 2004,


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