Do The Freakin Math

Liberals and conservatives alike frequently rely on limited evidence, personal experience, religious beliefs or gut emotions to determine solutions for complex problems. From immigration to global warming - taxes to terrorism - or health care to free trade - analytical study is rare. Science based policy making isn’t the way of Washington. And the consequences are catastrophic. Change is urgently needed. Just do the freakin’ math.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

MDGs off track

Memo to: Liberal and conservative groups working to meet the MDGs

Subject: OFF track for meeting the MDGs. Change is needed now.

Perhaps the greatest achievement in human history was the global eradication of smallpox. All the wars and revolutions combined in the last century killed approximately 100 million people world wide. Smallpox alone killed more than 300 million in only 70 years of that same century. Without eradication there would have been over 400 million deaths. This achievement is deserving of a “Spielberg’ movie with health workers, development planners, Congress and the American tax payers being the lead supporting actors for a vaccine that had been around for almost 100 years. Health experts acting on a hunch made a bold commitment. NGO resources were mobilized and coordinated, and Congress appropriated tax payers money without a guarantee of success. In summary, bold commitment dominated economic constraints and critics. A total of $32 million was appropriated for the US share of the ten year campaign. In an official 1997 report the respected U.S. Government Accounting Office calculated that this one time investment had saved American tax payers over $17 billion because our own children no longer required smallpox vaccinations.

On September 11, 2001 the success of a small group of ‘radical’ thinkers put history on a different course that would make our government appropriate billions in federal funding for a domestic smallpox vaccine campaign. Fearing another potential surprise attack, possibly with WMD, the Bush administration launched a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Fearing Saddam might react by releasing a weaponized version of smallpox (a new strain genetically engineered in the mid 1980s by the former Soviet Union) the Bush Administration required smallpox vaccinations for US troops as well as America’s medical first responders. In essence, a combination of global forces (poverty, ignorance, injustice and lack of environmental concern) put this ‘new’ smallpox threat, far more lethal than natures strain, back into our lives.

This new grave misfortune should not come as a shock. Much of it was predicted by holistic thinkers decades earlier. And much of it could have been prevented if bold political action had met political promises.

“Nearly 30 years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made a promise to the first World Food Conference: "Within a decade, no child will go to bed hungry." No one has made good on Kissinger's promise, but he was correct that it was possible. We had the means; we lacked the motivation. After September 11, we have both. If moral concern alone is not enough to impel serious U.S. action on reducing world hunger, our national interest--and national security--certainly ought to be. Happily, national interest and moral responsibility coincide here.”

Susan Sechler, The American Prospect: 01-JAN-02

What if also the need for alternative fuels had been taken seriously after the 1970’s gas crisis? What if the development needs of Afghanistan’s people had been taken seriously before the Soviets invaded or after the Soviets left? What if global education efforts had been fully funded in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the West Bank prior Operation Desert Storm or the second Intafada.

These questions relate to what could truly be humanities greatest achievement. The sustainable foundation of global freedom and security – meeting and eventually exceeding the measurable, affordable, and achievable Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015.

Unfortunately, given the current lack of fiscal boldness in American leadership at all levels (political, religious, economic and private voluntary organizations) most experts agree that these goals won’t be met.

Even more disturbing is the fact that even if the MDGs were achieved, the most destructive force on earth (poverty and its twin engines of illness and ignorance) would still exist at uncivilized levels. The most basic of human needs (nutrition, education, clean water, sanitation and basic health care) would still be lacking for hundreds of millions of innocent men, women, children, infants and fetuses.

Most disturbing however is that with only 8 years left few leaders are ringing alarm bells, demanding more, or even asking why?

After 28 years of working both inside and outside the beltway on a number of global issues and for a variety of NGOs I believe I have some insights deserving of discussion.

First, you don’t have to be in the White House or the military to be fearful of speaking truth to power. Doing so in a corporation or an NGO is career suicide. Those in power usually get there and remain there by appealing to what’s most popular or best funded. And most pressure that comes from the bottom up is fueled by anger or radical thinking. Telling those in power what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear wins few achievement awards.

Second, any funding victory one group has achieved on its favorite issue or project detracts from the funding available for other, often equally important and qualified projects. It’s bad enough that the most deserving is rarely awarded the most funds. It’s usually the most effective advocacy efforts that wins the increase in appropriations. Successful advocacy for child survival programs often detracted from family planning programs that were vital to the health of mothers. Increased appropriations for HIV/AIDS often cut into other worthy health, education or agriculture programs. Any proposal to fill the inevitable need for a new money source to avoid the zero-sum game inherent in the current federal funding process for other foreign aid, homeland security, defense or domestic needs runs into the third fundamental problem. The conservative nature of liberal humanitarian programs.

Humanitarian efforts are stubbornly resistant to looking outside their tradition box of solutions for a comprehensive holistic program. The overall effectiveness of HIV/AIDS prevention programs would benefit as much (or more) from basic education programs, microcredit employment opportunities, or TB treatment efforts as it would from the free distribution of condoms or antiviral meds. The 9-11 Commission’s insight of the problematic institutional walls between the CIA and FBI has nothing over the unintentional walls between development planners, peacekeeping troops or tree planters. Now it’s becoming clear that the most effective means to control the illicit drug production in Afghanistan that is increasingly funding terrorists attacks on coalition forces is the funding of alternative crops, basic education efforts and health care programs. Afghan farmers need help turning away from the security of poppy production. Even in the Horn of Africa the Marines are learning that the best way to prevent Al Qaeda from gaining a foot hold is to assist the locals in building schools, digging wells and provide vaccinations and police protection for the benefit of all.

This hits on the fourth debilitating characteristics of typical humanitarian advocacy groups. Their fear of using fear to draw attention to their cause. They’ve learned that hope sells better than pity or guilt but still resist the most powerful motivational force of self survival. Meeting the MDG’s is as vital to our nation’s security as the Department of Defense. A sound case can be made that it is more important. Effectively stemming the flow of infectious diseases, illegal immigrants, WMDs, radical fundamentalists, or global climate changes requires meeting our moral obligations to the poor more than our funding our troops. While our nation is at war full funding for meeting or exceeding the MDG’s won’t happen without clearly advocating the real and solid links between meeting global humanitarian needs and preventing the global spread of terrorism. The national security links have always been there. One of UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children reports in the late 1990s painted a picture of what the world would be like if we failed to achieve the slate of measurable, affordable and achievable goals for the year 2000 that were set at the 1990 World Summit for Children. It mentioned how much more difficult it would be using modern air ports in the new millennium if the forces of poverty weren’t effectively addressed. Even Carter’s 1980 Presidential Commission on World Hunger summarized the need to put ending hunger within a national security perspective.

That brings up the final point. It’s been my observation that PVO advocacy efforts change slowly if at all and that it may be an addiction to positive thinking that prevents any rigorous analysis of failure. No example could be more relevant to meeting the MDG’s than understanding our collective failure in achieving the MDG-like goals established at the 1990 World Summit for Children. The PVOs I’m aware of were happily content with progress made on several of the vital goals. I remain unaware of any serious examination as to why all of the affordable and achievable goals for the year 2000 were not met.

The Gates and Soros billions donated have been life saving. But they are insufficient and will likely be unsustainable in the face of a catastrophic global economic collapse. Something that could be sparked by a bird flu pandemic or God forbid, the bioterrorist release of weaponized smallpox, or the accidental release of some other highly contagious disease like a newer strain of XDR TB.

The ancient Chinese suggested that ‘if you keep heading in the direction you are going you are likely to end up where you are heading’. This should be fair warning to current NGO advocacy leadership. The MDGs are on track for failure. Time is running out. Nearly 27,000 children are still dying every day from easily preventable malnutrition and infectious diseases. And, global terrorism is spreading.

There is far more to fear than fear itself. Ignorance, poverty, pandemics, global warming, fanatics, injustice, WMD proliferation, economic instability… and don’t forget earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and asteroids. We are on this tiny planet together and Woodrow Wilson’s famous ‘4 freedoms’ speech is more relevant today than ever. I believe it’s not coincidence that ‘Freedom from want’ comes before ‘Freedom from fear”

I’m confident that once PVO advocacy leaders recognize the totality and inevitability of these threats and the role that their combined efforts must play in preventing most of them, and for preparing for those we can’t prevent, the sooner our species will achieve the greatest achievement humanly possible. Sustainable world peace with the maximum freedom, security and prosperity for all.

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