A Third World city in the First World

September 14, 1996|By Antero Pietila

CENSUS FIGURES confirm what we already knew: With increasing numbers of African Americans joining the decades-old white middle-class flight to the surrounding counties, Baltimore is rapidly becoming a city of even starker contrasts between overwhelming poverty and isolated islands of wealth.

I lived in Africa for three years, followed by five in the Soviet Union. Recently, I have been startled to see how rapidly Baltimore is acquiring some lifestyle features of underdeveloped Third World countries. Like sidewalk grills, operated without permits or health inspections, that sell snacks in the wee hours of the night along Pennsylvania Avenue and other thoroughfares.

Like other types of unregulated street vendors, with their makeshift tables. Like a population that increasingly tends to live without bothering to obtain building permits -- or even zoning approvals -- because it doesn't seem to make any difference.

Add to this such truly meaningful social indicators as high rates of infant mortality and childhood illness, unplanned births and sexually transmitted diseases, poverty, drug addiction and chronic unemployment, and it becomes evident Baltimore is a Third World city in the First World.

''I lived in India. When I travel around Baltimore, I see the same issues I saw in India,'' says Lee Tawney, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's assistant for international affairs.

The federal government officially recognized Baltimore's Third World characteristics two years ago, when the U.S. Agency for International Development began a pilot program here to test the implementation of strategies that had proved successful overseas. Since then, Boston, Seattle and Washington have been added to the list of American cities where USAID assists a program called ''Lessons Without Borders.''

All this will come to focus Monday, when some 200 participants will assemble at a two-day national conference at Johns Hopkins University to assess the progress of USAID's domestic outreach. To add glitter to the workshops on such mundane subjects as microenterprises and fund-raising, Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to make the closing remarks.

''Baltimore has had tremendous success with programs in child immunization, woman entrepreneurship and men's support services. These programs are sustainable not because USAID is giving us money but because USAID is giving us information and knowledge that we are applying in our community,'' Mayor Schmoke said in a statement.

Do as the Kenyans do

The Baltimore program, under a $55,000 grant from the Chesapeake Health Care Foundation, sent local experts to USAID sites in Kenya and Jamaica to see what could be applied here. Copying techniques learned in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, Baltimore's health department launched a massive inoculation program here and was able to boost the immunization rate of school-aged children from 62 percent to 96 percent, one of the highest rates in the nation.

As a result of another Kenya example, woman entrepreneurs in Baltimore implemented four peer-lending programs to help women finance small businesses ranging from catering to family day-care. Twenty-seven loans totaling $20,800 were issued. There have been no defaults.

Baltimore is fortunate to be the headquarters city for the Catholic Relief Services, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the hTC International Youth Foundation. They have vast experience on approaches that work. Baltimore also is different from most big cities in the real Third World. Poverty and desperation here may be increasing, but overall population is decreasing. With concentrated efforts, things should at least be controllable.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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