June 27, 2005

Live 8 challenged by U.S. perception of generosity

By Mark Egan

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

Live 8 concert organizers want to spur a global groundswellof support for African debt relief, but experts say the biggestchallenge in the United States is changing entrenchedperceptions that it is the world's most generous country.

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

But the world's richest economy actually spends just overone 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 thatthey are giving more than other countries on a percentagebasis," said Steven Kull, director of the University ofMaryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, which hascompiled data on Americans' aid views.

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

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


Irish rock star Bob Geldof, the man behind 1985's Live Aidconcerts and the planned worldwide Live 8 concerts on July 2,wants rich countries to annually give 0.7 percent of economicoutput 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 HarvardUniversity economist Kenneth Rogoff. He noted that if Americansfeel disconnected from African issues it is because "themajority of Americans have never even been abroad."

The United States was criticized for giving too littlegovernment aid after the deadly tsunami that hit Southeast Asialast year. President Bush said America gave a lot more whenprivate donations were included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida's Orlando Sentinel newspaper suggested there couldbe public fatigue over celebrity causes. The PhiladelphiaInquirer lamented that the concert will snarl traffic duringthe July 4 Independence Day weekend.

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

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


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

Live 8's agenda was boosted prior to the Group of Eight'smeeting in Scotland in July when the world's majorindustrialized nations announced a proposal to wipe out $40billion 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 moregenerous to themselves," Forbes magazine wrote, noting that in2004 U.S. courts erased $47 billion of debts through personalbankruptcy filings.

Lisa Meadowcroft, head of the New York office of theAfrican charity AMREF, said many Americans feel Africa'sproblems 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 awarenessabout Africa, but does not expect much impact.

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