WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Charitable giving in the United States has soared since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, but the bulk of donations have gone to agencies that deal directly with the reconstruction efforts within the United States, or to humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. In fact, not only has the visibility of worthy causes falling in those categories dropped, contributions to organizations dealing with issues such as the environment has diminished.
Concern about healthcare in developing countries has also taken a back seat to causes directly linked to Sept. 11, but the involvement of an international financier who has become a household name should help boost the profile of the topic somewhat. But whether that will translate into more financial assistance is another matter.
George Soros, who is perhaps best known for making a killing betting against the Bank of England and its efforts to remain a member of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, can if nothing else draw a crowd of financial reporters. His news conference at the World Bank Tuesday together with the World Health Organization's Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland and Jozef Ritzen, the World Bank's human development network vice president, to launch a global initiative to combat tuberculosis attracted a critical number of journalists, as Washington itself is struggling against an anthrax scare, and tuberculosis has been all but wiped out from industrialized nations.
The World Bank and the WHO are working together to bolster government funding against the spread of tuberculosis, both from the developing countries as well as industrialized nations. According to the international agencies, nearly 80 percent of the world population infected with tuberculosis is found in 22 countries, namely: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
The World Bank and WHO estimate that it would cost a total of $9.3 billion over a 5-year period to at least halve the number of those currently infected. While $4.8 billion of the total sum should be provided by the countries directly affected by the epidemic, the remaining $4.5 billion depends on contributions from industrialized countries which have yet to be committed, Soros said.
"$4.5 billion over a five-year period isn't a lot," said Brundtland, formerly the prime minister of Norway. She pointed out that Scandinavian countries continue to "give and give and give more," while other industrialized nations continue to shy away from contributing their fair share in development assistance.
Meanwhile, the World Bank's Ritzen noted that the need for worldwide cooperation to combat global concerns such as world health is all the more necessary, given the current trend for nations to work closely together on issues of mutual concern following the terrorist strikes.
It is, however, still unclear just how the project will be financed, whether by grants or by concessionary loans. Firstly, the international agencies have yet to secure funding from potential donor countries. Given that most industrialized nations have been forced to increase their government spending in the war against terrorism -- the Bush administration, for instance, has already moved forward to pass through an emergency economic stimulus package totaling over $100 billion to tackle the issues arising from the Sept. 11 attacks -- many are likely to be less able to meet the request from the global agencies, or indeed to be able to justify such expenditure to taxpayers.
Another problem is that while tuberculosis is an epidemic that is likely to hurt the already vulnerable poor, such as the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, there are other diseases such as AIDS that have siphoned off considerable amounts of resources from donor countries in recent years.
Moreover, there has yet been no discussion with the private sector on potential involvement, nor has been any conclusive talks with pharmaceutical companies to provide drugs below or at cost to combat the disease, unlike the AIDS campaign.
Another looming issue is that most of the countries that are adversely affected by the disease are already bogged down with sizeable foreign debt from multilateral institutions as well as individual countries, and it may prove difficult to increase lending to those countries without at least some debt restructuring.
Eradicating tuberculosis is no doubt a worthy global objective. But the root cause of tuberculosis and many other epidemics remains the lack of sanitation and healthcare, malnutrition, and other problems arising from poverty. The involvement of Soros may heighten the visibility of tuberculosis, and it certainly gives more credibility to any so-called business plan the international agencies come up with to combat the disease. But whether that is enough to rally industrialized nations to provide more financial assistance to deal with the epidemic at a time of heightened global uncertainty both politically and economically remains to be seen.