Missing in Monterrey
How big egos and small arms can tip the balance in the war on global poverty.
Current levels of world poverty are unacceptable. More money for development is needed. The approaches and institutions that guide foreign aid need to be overhauled. It is hard to disagree with these conclusions. Certainly, the heads of state who met in March in Monterrey, Mexico, did not. As a result, they will increase financing to fight poverty and will vigorously explore a range of new ideas for spending it more effectively.
But any discussion of new ideas for fighting poverty must encompass some powerful realities that never made it onto the Monterrey agenda. First, political support for foreign aid is very weak in the United States and other rich countries. Second, improvements in the effectiveness of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and other multilateral agencies depend critically on who is at the helm of each of these institutions. The process normally used to select and appoint these leaders is utterly broken. Third, little can be done to help the poor where armed conflict still rages, which is why curbing arms trafficking can be as important to fighting poverty as pledging extra money.
The poor’s poor constituency. Why does rock star Bono figure so prominently in the debate on world poverty, HIV/AIDS, and debt relief? Because, as he said after U.S. President George W. Bush invited him to the Oval Office, "I am a pest, I am a stone in the shoe of a lot of people living here in this town, a squeaky wheel." Bono’s millions of devoted fans also help him make politically visible what would otherwise be almost invisible to American political leaders. The Bush-Bono summit just before Bush’s announcement of more money for development exemplifies the photo-op approach to development aid taken by most U.S. presidents and politicians. Not surprisingly, according to the Washington, D.C.–based Center for Global Development, even with Bush’s new pledges, the share of the current U.S. budget devoted to helping poor nations is still lower than in most years between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1990s. As a proportion of the economy, U.S. contributions are also one of the lowest among rich countries. Building public and political support in rich countries for more money and better policies to alleviate poverty will be as important for the world’s poor as the decisions made in Monterrey. Until that happens, the poor will have to rely on Bono and other celebrities to make U.S. politicians pay attention.
Choosing the head of the IMF or the World Bank. The image and effectiveness of multilateral development, financial, and trade institutions are critical not just for aiding the poor but also for generating public support for such assistance. The heads of state meeting in Monterrey acknowledged this reality, but they did not say a word about the leaders of these organizations or how they are chosen. That is because the process is too ugly to discuss in public. These organizations, which preach democracy, meritocracy, accountability, and transparency to the governments they influence or to whom they lend, do not practice any of these virtues in selecting their top leaders. The White House appoints the president of the World Bank, and only a few European governments decide on the managing director of the IMF. Period. You can’t get more medieval or imperial than that. But the system is not only undemocratic; it is also dysfunctional and poorly managed. Witness the imbroglios over recent selections of a new managing director of the IMF and a director-general for the WTO. The United States and the European Union are unlikely to give up the privilege of appointing the heads of these institutions. But it behooves the international community to do a better job of picking candidates who have the backgrounds and skills that will make them better and more legitimate leaders of these indispensable organizations — a small detail that deserved some air time in Monterrey.
Fighting poverty often means fighting guns. John R. Bolton, the U.S. under secretary of state for arms control and international security, did not attend the Monterrey summit. He did, however, represent the United States at a U.N. conference on small-arms trafficking held last July. There he announced U.S. opposition to many of the ideas under consideration — such as a ban on private ownership of military weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers. "The United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to bear arms," Bolton said. He added that the United States could not agree to limit the supply of small arms to governments or to restrict their supply to individuals because it "believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life."
National life is not very good for countries ravaged by armed conflict. According to the United Nations, small arms fueled 46 of the 49 largest world conflicts of the last decade. The United Nations also estimates that about half these weapons were procured from illegal sources. Illicit trade in small arms is estimated to account for 1,000 deaths per day worldwide. More than 80 percent of these victims are women and children. Attitudes toward the production and trade of weapons, especially in the United States, will thus shape the future of many of the world’s poor. Yet the text approved in Monterrey says nothing about this issue. And if getting the United States to pony up more money for development was hard, getting it to support better regulation of the international trade of firearms will be much harder. Because while Bono’s advocacy underscores the generally weak political influence of the world’s poor in the United States, Mr. Bolton represents a very powerful constituency: politically active gun owners.
Summits on world poverty tend to take place in rarified atmospheres, detached from the realities of impoverishment that the meetings seek to address. Ironically, the statements and commitments made in Monterrey by leaders of the world’s richest countries seem also to have been detached from their political realities at home. Unless, of course, these leaders are already committed to changing those realities. That would be even better news for the world’s poor than more money for foreign aid.