Carter: U.S. is a stingy nation
President Jimmy Carter took an assembly of some of the most powerful people in the country to task yesterday, urging them to do what they can to alter the political climate that makes the United States one of the stingiest nations on earth.
“There really is no national commitment to improving the human condition of people who live at arm’s length from us,” he told the group at the Music Tent.
To provide a stark illustration, Carter pointed to the the United States’ shrinking commitment to the poorest nations in the world. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. budget is spent on direct aid programs. In Europe the average annual outlay is four-tenths of 1 percent, and some nations dole out as much as 4 percent.
“A child being born in South Africa today can expect to live 17 years less than their parents, mostly because of AIDS. But we don’t really want to touch, in a substantial way, the human condition of those children,” he said.
The 39th president of the United States closed out the Aspen Institute’s 50th Anniversary symposium with a 40-minute speech and a brief question-and-answer session. The four-day symposium, titled “Globalization and the Human Condition,” featured speeches by Carter and World Bank president James Wolfensohn and panel discussions on a variety of issues surrounding globalization.
Carter’s speech drew the largest audience of all, with more than 500 people, including many working locals, in attendance. Both the turnout and the substance was a sharp contrast to Wolfensohn’s keynote address last Saturday, which drew about half the crowd and offered no real solutions to the problems facing the 3 billion people who live on $2 or less a day.
“Since the Goethe Bicentennial in 1949, the Aspen Institute has evolved into one of those rare institutions that has tried to break down the barriers between us and them,” he said.
But Carter pointed out that many of those barriers remain. He talked about his recent visits with a dozen or so black families in his hometown of Plains, Ga. By any American definition, all of them are quite poor. The men in half the families have had at least one limb amputated and one woman was living on social security and a $22-a-month pension from a local agricultural firm.
“So who are the rich?” Carter asked.
“I’d say everyone in this room is rich, and I’d even say the black families I visited in Plains are rich. They have a home, a roof over their heads. They’ve had, at least at sometime in their lives, hope for gainful employment. And they have some degree of self respect and confidence about the future. The truly poor in the world have none of that,” he said.
“More than half the people on the earth live on less than $2 a day. They have no hope for the future. And we who analyze their situation – their human condition – do it from a distance.”
He continued with the example of children in South Africa, pointed out the miserly state of U.S. aid and noted the lack of national commitment to helping the poor.
“The fact is with the end of the Cold War, there’s only one superpower on earth – us. But we do not comprehend how the impoverished view us,” he said.
After listing a number of America’s recent foreign ventures – Nicaragua, Lebanon, Granada, Panama, the Gulf War and the interventions in Yugoslavia – Carter said, “These are episodes in our nation’s life that promote a feeling of national pride. But that’s because we can punish people around the world with impunity.”
Carter contrasted those “successes” with the U.S. policy toward Cuba. “We’ve punished Castro with sanctions for 40 years and all they do is absolve him of responsibility. He can point to the U.S. as the source of Cuba’s problems; meanwhile 15 million people suffer.
“And even people who don’t like Iraq see that the infant mortality rate there has quintupled because of American sanctions.”
Carter continued with some of the facts the rest of the world uses to assess the United States.
“We’re the only nation holding out against the abolition of land mines. We’re the only nation holding up the formation of an international court that would prosecute and hopefully prevent the heinous human rights abuses that occur in war. The rest of the world looks at us and sees a nation of enormous strength and wealth and power that is impervious to their human condition.”
Once this bleak portrait of the United States was complete, Carter began painting the picture he’d like to see. “The United States is the greatest nation on earth,” he said. “But greatness needs to be defined, or on occasion it needs to be reassessed.
“What would be your definition of a great nation?” he asked the audience.
“I would say an unwavering stalwart of peace. The nations of the world should be able to look to Washington to broker their peace, like we do now in Jerusalem. I would say we should be a champion of freedom and democracy. I would say another measure of greatness, in a nation or a human being, is to share our great wealth, our surplus wealth, with people in need.”
Carter finished to a standing ovation from nearly everyone present. But he wasn’t done quite yet. He remained to answer questions from some of the Institute’s Henry Crown Fellows.
“Do you see any opportunity in the face of globalization for the poorest nations in Africa?” asked Peter Reily.
“I do, but first we need to understand their real needs,” Carter answered. As an example, he used Ethiopia, which fought a bloody civil war through much of the 1970s and 1980s.
The new leadership in Ethiopia has been pleading for assistance in preventing the spread of disease with little result. “The leadership there does not want to see all its public health officials educated in England and America. What it wants is to establish a number of medical colleges in Ethiopia, where they can learn among the people they are treating using the latest technology,” he said.
In answer to question of whether the disparity between rich and poor nations really mattered when a large number of people are becoming better off, Carter waffled a bit. “I’m convinced the biggest challenge isn’t the gap between rich and poor; it’s the growing gap between rich and poor. The situation is not getting better, it’s only growing worse.”
He also said the Internet would be a great tool for making educational materials available to instructors all over the world at every educational level. Then he took a moment to praise chemical manufacturer Du Pont for donating millions of dollars in products that have vastly improved life for millions of the world’s most impoverished people.
“In my opinion,” Carter finished, “the people of America are some of the most generous in the world. But when it percolates up the political system, it transforms from generosity to stinginess.”
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