What’s the haps in Busan

Busan street market

Busan is the second largest city in South Korea and one of the world’s biggest port cities.

If you knew that, maybe you already know about the big “high-level” meeting there this week featuring folks like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and thousands of other top officials from around the world.

But you probably didn’t. I suspect many Americans likely haven’t even heard of Busan, or much about the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness conference going on there through tomorrow.

This may stem from the fact that many, if not most, Americans fail to understand why civilized, developed nations do foreign aid and overseas development — let alone why top world leaders, activists and others would attend such a wonky sounding meeting in some far-flung Asian city.

My job is to help you understand. It can be difficult, I agree, in part because the language of foreign aid and development is, frankly, awful. Deadly. Dull. Yes it is. But what we’re talking about here is not. This is often about life and death, peace versus war, hope versus despair. How we get a better world.

So I’ve been following the discussions at this meeting, remotely, and largely via The Guardian’s excellent coverage. As Sec. Clinton said in Busan, we do foreign aid and development because it is in our national interest to do so:

“Countries with growing economies are less likely to send refugees streaming across their borders or traffic in arms, drugs or people.”

That’s the standard U.S. political sound-bite anyway: Foreign aid makes us safer.

True enough, but isn’t this a sad state of affairs — that this is the case American politicians think they have to make?

Given the push right now by some in Congress to cut foreign aid (which is only about 1 percent of the budget), it often seems like our leaders shy away from saying this is about helping the world’s poorest. Why is that such a tough case for our government to make? It’s not a tough case for British conservatives or most European leaders to make. I wonder ….

This is the moral imperative angle, which I would say actually has a lot of support in the greater Seattle area where a substantial humanitarian aid and development community is big and getting bigger.

At the Busan meeting, Oxfam is among a number of organizations trying to shame governments and donors to keep their promises on foreign aid. Here’s a great video Oxfam made to make its case for how best to improve foreign aid:

But there are other non-shaming arguments to be made as well in favor of aid and development, such as the economic one. Here’s one such, initially confusing, case that was made by Tony Blair, writing in the Washington Post, on how improving foreign aid can help put an end to foreign aid:

Fifty years ago, the scene in Busan, South Korea, would have been a familiar image of international aid: sacks of grain stacked precariously on a crumbling dockside. The backdrop would have been a country emerging from war and dependent on outside assistance to meet the most basic needs. But when national and development leaders gather in Busan this week to discuss the future of aid, they will see a very different place: the fifth-busiest commercial port in the world, transporting advanced technologies around the globe. This, writ small, is the Korean miracle — the transformation of a country from aid-dependent to aid donor.

This isn’t rocket science. It should be obvious that it is in our economic interest to help other countries improve their lot. Yet, again, for some reason, even this remains a hard sell in the U.S.

Blair noted in the Post article — and also in The Guardian — that despite the doldrums affecting the U.S. and many rich nations the economies of 19 countries, including eight in sub-Saharan Africa, more than doubled in size from 2000 to 2010. China certainly sees Africa as the land of economic opportunity these days. Arguably, much of that improvement has come from development and aid projects.

The problem with aid and development is that projects often fail. The point of the Busan meeting is to improve the effectiveness of aid, which may sound simple but it’s not.

Part of the problem is, in fact, the downside legacy of the moral imperative. A lot of aid and development initiatives get started because we want to do something, anything, to save lives and reduce poverty. Sometimes, as a result, we do things that make us feel good but don’t actually improve things.

Secondly, a lot of U.S. foreign aid especially is “tied” to conditions — political criteria or simply a requirement that the recipient nation getting, say, AIDS drugs has to purchase them from American drug companies. That sort of thing looks good on the surface but often ends up serving our interests at the expense of accomplishing a greater good for the people we claim to be trying to help.

These are just a few of the issues, and arguments, at Busan over how to make aid and development more effective.

Once you really take a look at foreign aid and development, within the context of a globalized world, you realize there really is no choice but for the U.S. to take it as seriously as we take defense and international commerce. So we might as well try to make it effective.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.