People are dying in Africa at alarming and shameful rates. But it is America we should be worried about. Mothers hold their dying children in their arms, utterly powerless. World leaders hold grand meetings and argue over who is responsible for the hunger of a continent. Politicians ponder, governments wait, citizens of wealthy nations watch and do nothing.
While we were busy designating 2005 the “Year of Africa,” rocking to concerts held around the world to raise awareness of poverty on the continent, and hearing positive press about the leaders of wealthy nations pledging to do more at the G-8 conference, Niger teetered ever closer to the brink of famine.
Niger is the second-poorest country in the world, with 64 percent of its 12 million citizens living on less than a dollar a day. After experiencing a severe drought this year, the United Nations asked for $80 million in food assistance, but it had only received $427,000 worth of food supplements from the French government in May, and now almost one out of every four children is dying from malnutrition.
Africa is home to the majority of the most impoverished countries in the world. Her poor are guilty only of being born on a forgotten continent, one festering with malnutrition and illiteracy, AIDS and ignorance. Mostly though, they are victims of the West and its failure to give a damn.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair proposed to double the aid given to Africa by member nations of the G-8 to $25 billion, the majority of the eight richest countries in the world found the money in their budgets. The United States, however, rejected the plan — President Bush claimed simply throwing money at the problem was an ineffective use of funding if the governments receiving the funds are corrupt.
While it is true that aid money should be given with vision — creating, for example, a plan that would help African nations help themselves — it must be given.
The United States has its share of scandals as well (think Halliburton, Enron and, of course, Kwame). When President Bush asked for an additional $87 billion for Iraq, for instance, Congress gladly wrote the check. No strings were attached mandating that the money go to rebuilding the infrastructure our bombs destroyed. No stipulation was made that the money must be used to protect the Iraqi people before it could be used to protect their oil fields.
Niger is the Bush administration’s worst nightmare because it is neither a tyranny nor in the midst of civil war. Instead it is a democracy, one where the government does not possess the resources to feed its people. If Bush fails to act in Niger, he will lead the United States into its greatest scandal ever — a missed opportunity to save thousands, maybe even millions of lives.
Getting serious about eradicating, or at least alleviating, Africa’s unmatchable scale of poverty will require Americans to confront some uncomfortable realities and make tangible sacrifices. Here at the University of Michigan, an elite place of learning where some of the country’s greatest engineers, thinkers and leaders will emerge, it means taking the time out of our busy, privilege-filled lives to be embarrassed at our nation’s gross negligence. As college-educated Americans, we do not have the choice to be apathetic; we have the heart to be ashamed, the education to know better, and the power to create true change.
Gay is a member of the Daily’s editorial board. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.