We’ve all seen the Save The Children commercials on television. For less than your daily metro fare, you can feel infinitely good about yourself by providing basic provisions to a child in poverty overseas. These children are in deep need; there’s no question. Yet the best way to help is often less clear.
Michael Gerson’s latest in the Washington Post feels a bit like these familiar aid promos with their heartsick music and glittering generalities. Gerson examines a broken, HIV-stricken Liberia starting from scratch after a decade of brutal civil war. Unsurprisingly, the mortality rates for children there are very high. The central metaphor Gerson revisits is his interaction with a refugee whose nurse, on dispensing her AIDS medication, “wrote out the words ‘life’ and ‘death’ on a piece of paper and told her to choose one.”
We must also make a quick decision about aid, says Gerson, and that’s where he gets into trouble.
Using his experience in Liberia to go on an idealistic rant, Gerson, with some sad piano tune seemingly wafting through the air, grandly concludes that “the death of a child is an assault on the idea of moral order.” Yet children die every day, and the moral order of the world continues intact. This is no less a tragedy, but it is the truth.
Gerson cites Liberia’s overall poverty to justify his call for immediate spending: “The entire national budget is about half that of the D.C. public school system. Liberia’s total per capita expenditure is $125 per year.” Yet the U.S. contribution there is already $200 million a year. Compared to the GDP of this country, is that not massive?
Research has shown that foreign aid is often abused and seldom reaches the people for whom it was originally intended. In countries that lack effective government, it often makes a corrupt few wealthier while disease and need abide. The realities of poverty are disturbing, but they are insufficient grounds for an impulsive aid decision on Liberia—particularly one that further extends a U.S. government in debt and does little to alleviate the problem.
Gerson’s idealism leaves him with a flawed solution to these enduring problems.