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Frida Berrigan is senior research associate at the World Policy Institute. 
Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than homes, lives and livelihoods; it swept away the curtain hiding the poor, confronting the richest country on the globe with its inner Third World.
Thousands of families faced this Category 5 storm with nothing. The hurricane hit at the end of the month, after public assistance checks had been spent on food and rent. For too many people, the order to evacuate was an impossibility—they had no car, no money for a bus ticket and nowhere to go even if they could have left.
The images of people—almost all of them black—pouring into the New Orleans Superdome could have been beamed in from the Sudan or Indonesia if the backgrounds of pictures did not have the telltale clues of industrialization—billboards, road signs, SUVs on their sides.
In a nation where almost half the population identifies as middle class, easy access to credit and luxury goods, second mortgages and third jobs allow many to ignore how close to poverty they are. A storm, an extended hospital stay or a lay-off could tumble them into desperation, and the social safety net is tattered beyond repair.
As aid flowed into the storm-torn region from around the country and the world—even from countries that are far poorer than the United States—presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and gracious leaders for life gathered in New York to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals, a set of benchmarks aimed at freeing “fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty.”
The goals are both sweeping and precise. In 2000, the nations of the world committed to increase their contributions to development assistance, pledging to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty, achieve universal primary education, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental stability, promote gender equality, empower women, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health while developing a global partnership for development.
Sound like a tall order? It is. But it is also key to human security and international stability, and it is fairly affordable. The $7 billion needed each year over the next decade “to provide 2.6 billion people with access to clean water” is less than Americans spend on elective corrective surgery like nose jobs and breast enlargements. Europeans spend more than $7 billion on perfume each year. The UNDP estimates that this investment would save 4,000 lives each day.
United Nations member states agreed to detailed benchmarks and timelines for each of these goals, but as the meeting to revisit progress on the goals opened, John Bolton, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, tried to deny that Washington had ever made such a commitment. He went so far as to propose that the body strike mention of the Millennium Development Goals from its documents and said the U.S. never promised to increase development aid to 0.7 percent of GDP up from its current contributions of about 0.1 percent of GDP. The United States was singled out in the UNDP report as one of the most miserly in humanitarian aid, as a percentage of gross domestic product.
Not only are these goals under attack by the administration, but they are nowhere near being met. The UN’s Human Development Report, International Cooperation at the Crossroads: Aid, Trade and Security in an Unequal World , released on the eve of the World Summit, asserts that: “the overall report card on progress makes for depressing reading…. the promise to the world’s poor is being broken.” It offers a scathing critique of the United States and other wealthy nations, revealing not only their lack of generosity and compassion for the poor throughout the world, but their own hidden Third World.
In the section on health care, the UNDP report notes that the United States leads the world in healthcare spending, allocating twice the world average. Despite this huge investment, the report’s authors assert that public health indicators in the U.S. are “marred by deep inequalities linked to income, health insurance coverage, race, ethnicity, geography and—critically—access to care.” In the United States, the infant mortality rate is now higher than in many other industrial countries. Malaysia’s average income is one-quarter that of the U.S., but it has the same infant mortality rate. The Indian state of Kerala has an urban infant death rate lower than that for African Americans in the nations’ capital of Washington, D.C.
One of the reasons for these imbalances is what the report’s authors call "an overdeveloped military strategy" which contributes to an "under-developed strategy for human security." Globally, for every $1 invested in development assistance, another $10 is spent on military budgets. In fact, the amount that rich countries currently spend on HIV/AIDS—a human security threat that claims 3 million lives a year—represents three days spending on military hardware.
The United States is the world’s largest military spender, accounting for almost half the global total and more than the next 32 nations spend combined. Allocating $5 billion a month to the war and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is little left over for human development in New Orleans or the Niger Delta, Baton Rouge or Bangalore.
As long as such imbalances are allowed to stand, the United States and other wealthy nations will be building walls to keep out the Third World—an increasingly difficult task as it grows within our borders as well as without.