Live 8 challenged by U.S. perception of generosity


  • World
  • Monday, 27 Jun 2005

By Mark Egan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Buddy, we gave already. 

Live 8 concert organizers want to spur a global groundswell of support for African debt relief, but experts say the biggest challenge in the United States is changing entrenched perceptions that it is the world's most generous country. 

Polls over the last decade show most Americans believe 10 percent of the federal budget is spent on humanitarian and economic aid for the world's poor and that America gives more than any other country. 

But the world's richest economy actually spends just over one half of 1 percent of its budget on aid to the world's poor, less per capita than every other wealthy nation. 

"Americans believe they are giving a lot already and that they are giving more than other countries on a percentage basis," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, which has compiled data on Americans' aid views. 

"There is also a lot of belief that aid is given as a bribe to foreign governments to buy their loyalty," he added. 

While most Americans support more assistance for Africa, Kull said suspicions that African governments are corrupt and that International Monetary Fund and World Bank bailouts benefit U.S. banks rather than the poor fuels resistance. 

"INCREDIBLY IGNORANT" 

Irish rock star Bob Geldof, the man behind 1985's Live Aid concerts and the planned worldwide Live 8 concerts on July 2, wants rich countries to annually give 0.7 percent of economic output in an effort to halve poverty by 2015. 

The United States contributes less than 0.2 percent. 

"It's pathetic how low our aid budget is," said Harvard University economist Kenneth Rogoff. He noted that if Americans feel disconnected from African issues it is because "the majority of Americans have never even been abroad." 

The United States was criticized for giving too little government aid after the deadly tsunami that hit Southeast Asia last year. U.S. President George W. Bush said America gave a lot more when private donations were included. 

But even when private giving is counted, American aid on a per-capita basis ranks 19th out of 21 rich countries, according to Foreign Policy magazine's 2004 Ranking the Rich survey. 

Rogoff, a former IMF chief economist, expects the Live 8 and debt-forgiveness efforts will achieve little. 

"The feeling that we are somehow doing these countries a lot of good by forgiving their debts is incredibly ignorant on some level," he said. 

Rogoff said rich nations should give grants instead of loans and African nations must reform. 

Noting that China and India received little aid but raised millions of people out of poverty through economic reforms, Rogoff said African nations are "economically, socially and politically backward, and that is the fundamental problem." 

The planned Live 8 concert in Philadelphia has generated scant U.S. media attention compared with Geldof's benefit concert for the Ethiopian famine 20 years ago. 

Florida's Orlando Sentinel newspaper suggested there could be public fatigue over celebrity causes. The Philadelphia Inquirer lamented that the concert will snarl traffic during the July 4 Independence Day weekend. 

The push to relieve poor countries' debts, often run up by corrupt dictators, began in 1995 when Jubilee 2000 with U2's singer Bono as its top lobbyist urged debt cancellation. 

In 1996, that movement spurred an IMF and World Bank program to reduce the debts of 38 poor countries. 

MIXED RESULTS 

To date, 18, including Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Ghana, have benefited. But 20 others, mostly African nations such as Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Chad, still struggle to meet conditions that they curb corruption and show how the saved money will be used to reduce poverty. 

Live 8's agenda was boosted prior to the Group of Eight's meeting in Scotland in July when the world's major industrialized nations announced a proposal to wipe out $40 billion of debts owed by 18 of the world's poorest countries, reducing debt-servicing costs by about $1.5 billion annually. 

"In terms of debt forgiveness, Americans are much more generous to themselves," Forbes magazine wrote, noting that in 2004 U.S. courts erased $47 billion of debts through personal bankruptcy filings. 

Lisa Meadowcroft, head of the New York office of the African charity AMREF, said many Americans feel Africa's problems are insurmountable. 

"Americans very much like to be on the side of the winner," she said. "And yet so often, what is in the newspapers ... about Africa is gloom and doom." 

Meadowcroft welcomes Live 8 as a way to raise awareness about Africa, but does not expect much impact. 

"Will the concert bring significant, lasting change? Whatever really does?" she asked. 

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