Obama: U.S. changing battle plan on poverty

Image: Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations
At the United Nations on Wednesday, President Barack Obama announces that the United States is changing its approach to development to focus less on spending money. Andrew Gombert / EPA
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Addressing a global conference on poverty, President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the United States is changing its approach to development and will use diplomacy, trade, investment and other policies to help poorer countries instead of just giving them money.

"Put simply, the United States is changing the way we do business," Obama said as he announced the administration's new development policy in a speech at the outset of a three-day visit to the United Nations.

Obama said helping poorer countries prosper is good for the U.S. It's the right thing to do, he said, adding that the United States also needs capable partners to deal with global problems as they arise. It also needs growing foreign economies for its exports.

For too long, Obama said, U.S. policy has been defined by the amount of money spent and food and medicines delivered.

"But aid alone is not development," he said. "Development is helping nations to actually develop, moving from poverty to prosperity. And we need more than just aid to unleash that change."

Obama said the U.S. also is changing its view of the ultimate goal of development. He said that some U.S. aid has saved lives in the short term — such as food aid for millions of starving people around the world — but that it hasn't always improved those societies over the long term.

"That's dependence, and it's a cycle we need to break," Obama said.

But he stressed that the U.S. will continue leading the world as a provider of emergency assistance.

"We will not abandon those who depend on us for lifesaving help," he said. "We keep our promises and honor our commitments."

The new strategy, which administration officials said was the product of a nearly yearlong effort, also includes anti-corruption measures and calls for accountability from the U.S. and the countries it partners with.

Obama pledged to work with Congress to match U.S. investments to administration priorities and he called on donor countries to honor their commitments. But his strongest plea was for developing countries, urging them to share some of the responsibility.

"We want you to prosper and succeed. It's in your interest and it's in our interest," Obama said. "We want to help you realize your aspirations. But there is no substitute for your leadership."

The three-day U.N. summit, which aims to push global leaders to meet U.N. goals to significantly reduce poverty by 2015, wraps up on Wednesday with new financial pledges from the U.S. and other countries to combat maternal and child mortality.

Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg urged other countries to join Britain in meeting aid commitments.

The goals, "are not simply charity, nor are they pure altruism," Clegg said. "They are also the key to lasting safety and future prosperity."

The issues of maternal and child mortality have been a particular focus of the summit, which reviewed efforts to implement anti-poverty goals adopted in 2000 — and found them lacking. Worldwide every year, an estimated 8 million children still die before reaching their 5th birthday, and about 350,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched a $40 billion plan aimed at saving the lives of 16 million women and children over the next five years.

"In many parts of the world, women have yet to benefit from advances that made childbirth much safer nearly 100 years ago," Ban said at the afternoon launch of his pet project.

The plan seeks to make headway on maternal and child health, the slowest-moving elements of the Millennium Development Goals set by the world body 10 years ago to help the estimated $1 billion people living under $1.25 a day.

'Realities are simply unacceptable'"These realities are simply unacceptable," Ban told a gathering attended by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and several African leaders including Rwandan President Paul Kagame. "The 21st century must be and will be different."

His announcement came on the last day of a U.N. summit in which 140 countries are set to renew their commitment to meet the goals and agree to intensify efforts to achieve them.

Along with easing maternal and child mortality, the goals included cutting extreme poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education, halting and reversing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

But there was no certainty that there will be enough money and political will to fulfill the plans and pledges. Many countries are under financial pressure from the effects of the global economic crisis as well as rising food and energy prices.

The United Nations agrees that the goals of halving poverty and hunger are within reach, but more is needed to meet those that cover education and maternal health, reducing child mortality, combating major diseases, promoting gender equality and protecting the environment.

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told the leaders Tuesday that the lack of security in his home country has made it harder to achieve the anti-poverty goals, known as the MDGs.

"The enemies of peace and stability in Afghanistan are still active, orchestrating well-planned attacks against schools, clinics, teachers, doctors, government employees and even young children, particularly school girls," Rassoul said. "Unfortunately, similar attacks continue against humanitarian aid organizations and their personnel."

The world leaders are reviewing efforts to implement anti-poverty goals adopted at a summit in 2000. These include cutting extreme poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education, halting and reversing the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and cutting child and maternal mortality — all by 2015.

Emma Seery, spokeswoman for the development group Oxfam, said an additional $88 billion was needed to meet child and maternal health goals by 2015 and anything less was not enough.

"We have learned to be skeptical of big announcements at summits," Seery said in a statement. "What really counts is where the money is coming from, which means leaders going home and putting that money into national budgets."

Ban: 'On track' to cut extreme poverty
Ban has said the world is "on track" to cut extreme poverty by half, the No. 1 goal, by 2015 though some critics say it's mainly because of the big strides in China and India. Many recent reports show that the world's poorest countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, have made little progress in eradicating poverty. And the U.N. said that at the current rate of progress, the world will miss the target of cutting in half the proportion of people without basic sanitation.

"It rarely makes headlines but poor sanitation and dirty water kills thousands of children each day and is crippling the health of billions in developing countries," Mariame Dem of WaterAid, an organization working in 26 countries to improve access to safe water and basic sanitation, said in a statement. She urged the summit to give a higher priority to sanitation.

At a global health event Tuesday, the secretary-general praised achievements over the last decade including decreasing HIV infections by 17 percent since 2001, saving an estimated 6 million lives through work on tuberculosis, and securing financing for all the bed nets needed to fight malaria.

But Ban said an estimated $28 billion to $50 billion will be needed annually between 2011 and 2015 to achieve universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said donating public money is not enough to help end poverty and meet other U.N. goals.

He renewed France's push for a small international tax on financial transactions to fund achievement of the MDGs.

"But this is not about replacing public funding — that's the message that the world must get through," he told reporters Tuesday, speaking in French. "It's not a technical problem, it's a political problem. We need to have strong political will."

Asked about possible opposition from other countries to the tax, the former founder of Doctors without Borders, clearly exasperated, switched to English and declared: "I know that they are not all in agreement. But it was the case when we founded Doctors Without Borders. It was impossible so we did it."

"Yes, it will be impossible, so we will do it," he said.