Last year was dubbed the "Year of Development." Leaders of the world's richest nations made impassioned pleas to help the poor at a summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, French President Jacques Chirac proposed an airline ticket tax to fund foreign aid. At a world trade summit in Hong Kong in December, rich countries offered to phase out subsidies for their agricultural exports. U2 rocker-activist Bono jetted everywhere from Nigeria to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, touting The One Campaign to end global poverty, and movie stars donned insignia bracelets in support of his cause. "There can be no excuse, no defense, no justification for the plight of millions of our fellow human beings," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in March. "There should be nothing that stands in the way of our changing it."
But are the world's richest countries actually making things better for those most in need? Each year the Center for Global Development and Foreign Policy look past the rhetoric to measure how rich-country governments are helping or hurting poor countries. How much aid are they giving? How high are their trade barriers against imports such as cotton from Mali or sugar from Brazil? Are they working to slow global warming? Are they making the world's sea lanes safe for global trade? To find out, the index ranks 21 nations by assessing their policies and practices across seven areas of government action: foreign aid, trade, investment, migration, environment, security, and technology.
In large part, the deeds of the last year did not live up to the talk. In most policy areas that matter for poor countries, a majority of rich-country governments either failed to follow words with meaningful action -- or they simply remained silent. At Gleneagles, British and American negotiators pushed through an agreement to "drop the debt" for up to 40 poor, mostly African countries. It may sound extraordinarily generous, but this debt relief package equals a mere 1 percent increase in aid. The Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations also "committed" themselves to "substantially reducing" subsidies and tariffs that protect their farmers at the expense of farmers in poor countries. Again, it may have sounded good, but the G-8's offer, spelled out later in the year, was only equivalent to cutting the European Union's import barriers by 1 percent. The feebleness of the offer is one reason why world trade negotiations remain hopelessly deadlocked.
No development news of the past year commanded more headlines than immigration. In the United States, millions of Latin American migrants marched in the streets and boycotted their jobs in an effort to draw attention to the positive contributions they make to America's economy. In France, demonstrations in the Paris suburbs turned violent as the country's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced he might deport tens of thousands of immigrants back to their home countries. Yet this hotly debated issue was followed by precious little action. Prime Minister Blair convened a Commission for Africa, but it studiously avoided talking about how Britain could make it easier for someone from Kenya or Ghana to immigrate, get a job, develop skills, and send money home. In the United States, immigration legislation brewed in the U.S. Congress, but then stalled. And the subject was equally taboo for French politicians.
A less publicized event of 2005 was the notable growth in total foreign aid given by rich countries. It shot to a record $106.5 billion, thanks largely to reconstruction efforts in Iraq. But some $19 billion of that aid came in the form of the cancellation of old loans to Iraq and Nigeria. These write-offs, though long overdue, put little new money in the hands of Iraqis and Nigerians. These aid figures should also be kept in perspective. Consider that India and China added some $400 billion to their combined economic output last year alone. That's proof that internal, not external, forces more often drive economic development. China's export of goods and India's export of services to rich countries have helped produce economic growth and poverty reduction so rapid that the Millennium Development Goal of a 50 percent cut in the number of people living on $1 a day has probably already been met on a global level.
Internal factors may drive development, but external ones can facilitate it -- or stand in the way. That point was made by Andrew Natsios, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, when he challenged America's longstanding food aid program before stepping down in January. Natsios criticized a law that requires the U.S. government to buy food from U.S. farmers, ship it on American boats, and deliver it to famine-stricken regions via U.S.-based organizations. The U.S. government must deliver food aid this way even when it depresses local food prices, pushing more farmers into poverty, and even when it could buy food from farmers just outside a famine zone for much less. Some nongovernmental organizations that get a large fraction of their funding from the program defended the status quo, arguing that dropping the "made in America" requirement would undermine the program’s support among American farmers and shippers. Congress quickly axed Natsios's proposal for reform. That the U.S. government must pay off American interests to feed the starving is a sad commentary on how low the commitment to development may still be.
It also helps explain why the United States finishes 13th in this year's index. The Netherlands, meanwhile, ranks first on the strength of its generous aid-giving, falling greenhouse gas emissions, and support for investment in developing countries. Japan improved, but remains in last place as the rich country least committed to helping the poor. It might seem strange that small nations such as the Netherlands beat out large economies such as Japan and the United States. But the index measures how well countries are living up to their potential. In truth, even the Dutch could do better. They are party, for instance, to Europe's Common Agricultural Policy, which effectively levies a 40 percent tax on farm imports from poor countries. That certainly doesn’t help the world's poorest countries, no matter what anyone says.