Lessons from the Third World

June 12, 1994

For more than three decades, the United States has been sending small armies of people to poor countries to aid economic development efforts. Now, when Americans have plenty of reason to be concerned about their own economic well-being, many voters are beginning to look askance at the money spent on foreign aid. The partnership inaugurated this past week between Baltimore and the U.S. Agency for International Development is aimed at finding ways to apply the lessons learned in development efforts overseas to some of America's urban ills.

The lessons abound: Haiti may be poor, miserable and desperate. But in many areas it does a better in immunizing its children against common childhood diseases than some parts of Baltimore. Could we learn something from their approach?

Bangladesh also has enormous misery and deprivation. But through its innovative Grameen Bank it has found a way to provide capital to millions of poor people, particularly women. In this country, poor people are caught in a credit bind, vastly limiting their ability to capitalize on their own initiative. Without money or other assets, it is hard to qualify for a loan.

The Grameen Bank has found that loans of even $10 and $20 enable women to invest in spinning wheels or other equipment necessary to begin very small businesses, or "micro enterprises." By helping these people tap into their own energy and initiative, the bank enables them to magnify their household income and improve their family's standard of living. Programs modeled on the Grameen Bank have given similar chances to poor people here; how can we expand these efforts?

Anyone familiar with the lives of very poor people, whether in inner cities or rural areas, knows their problems transcend national borders. Their problems reach far beyond the daily challenge to maintain adequate food and shelter. From unanticipated pregnancies, infant mortality and unhealthy children to lack of jobs or no access to credit, the problems of poor people in Maryland look a lot like those faced by the poor elsewhere in the world.

It is refreshing to see that a federal agency charged with funding development programs in other countries can also recognize the importance of finding ways to share what it learns with people in this country. That not only enriches efforts to help poor Americans; it also helps to inform taxpayers about the vital role foreign aid can play in a dangerously unstable world.

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