America's ignorance is a threat to humanity

The director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Jeffrey D. Sachs, with some criticism of the Bush Administration.

The undoing of U.S. foreign policy is captured in the budget numbers. Long gone are the Marshall Plan times, when America dedicated several percent of its gross domestic product to European reconstruction. The United States will spend about $450 billion this year on the military but only $15 billion on official development assistance.

The 30-to-1 ratio is mirrored by a similar imbalance in American thinking. America’s military expertise is undoubted. America’s ability to understand what exists before and after wars in low-income countries is nearly nonexistent.

Changing all of this will require much more than recognizing the errors of the Iraq war. A good starting point would be to rebuild USAID into a pre-eminent agency for understanding and resolving human catastrophes and security threats arising from extreme poverty.

This agency requires a professional, nonpoliticized leadership and staff; a new mandate to study a world economy of startling inequalities; increased financial resources to help fragile and impoverished countries before they fall into chaos; and a rank as a cabinet-level department, so that expertise gets a hearing at the centers of power. America’s efforts will need to go beyond one agency, however. The United States must have leaders who recognize that the problems of the poor aren’t trifles to leave to do-gooders, but are vital strategic issues. For the first time in decades, America must strive to understand problems – tropical disease, malnutrition and the like – that are unfamiliar to Americans but are urgent concerns of billions of people abroad.

In the case of a superpower, ignorance is not bliss; it is a threat to Americans and to humanity.

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