Jimmy Carter Calls for Better Approach to Foreign Aid in Speech at Geographic

Stentor Danielson
National Geographic News
July 11, 2002
When developing countries look to the rest of the world for help, it's
important to make sure the response is a grassroots effort and not just
solutions imposed from the top down, former United States President
Jimmy Carter and other panelists said Wednesday night at National
Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The discussion centered on aid to what Carter referred to in a speech earlier in the evening as "the poorest, most destitute, forgotten nations in the world." The event was held as part of celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps.

The panelists included Carter's 26-year-old grandson, Jason, who served two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural South African village. The National Geographic has just published his book describing that experience, Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa's Borders.

Other members of the panel were Jack Nelson, a former Los Angeles Times Washington correspondent, and South African Ambassador Sheila Makate Sisulu. The discussion was moderated by Boyd Matson, host of the TV show National Geographic Explorer.

Helping People Help Themselves

The panelists agreed that social change and outside assistance in countries with great political, economic, and social problems are likely to be more effective when local people are the driving force.

"It's the people on the ground who are pushing the leaders," Sisulu said. "The people of the country need to be brought together…no solution proposed from outside can ever be lasting."

Jason Carter agreed that "people on the ground" are the key to solving problems in Africa and elsewhere. "You forget sometimes that these are issues that people deal with every day," he said.

He said his experiences in South Africa showed him how, under the highly segregated education system of apartheid that prevailed in South Africa for decades, black South Africans had been taught to see themselves as inferior and to look to whites for answers.

"It's really hard for a white person to come in and teach them that they don't need a white person," he said.

Sisulu praised the Peace Corps for making the style of bottom-up, rather than top-down, aid its ethos. "When we work with people, we don't strip them of their dignity," he said.

Lack of Trust

The Carter Center also relies on local people trained by the Center to do much of its work. The Carter Center, based near Atlanta, Georgia, does diplomatic and aid—much of which is for health and nutrition—work in 65 nations.

Jimmy Carter said some nations seek help from the Carter Center when they have problems because they often trust it more than they do powerful foreign nations and agencies.

The U.S. government does not command that same level of trust all around the world, the panelists noted. "The last thing they want is the United States government. The second to last thing they want is the United Nations," Carter said.

He said that when he was in Bangladesh, for example, he talked to many people who saw subsidies to U.S. farmers as a "devastating blow to Third World countries." Subsidies lower the price of U.S. food exports, hurting farmers who are not subsidized and thus cannot sell their products as cheaply.

"Subsidies in the U.S. and Europe do not help us," Sisulu agreed, saying that they create dependence on food imports and pose a barrier to trade.

The panelists suggested that the U.S. commitment to assisting developing countries also undermines trust by many people around the world. The United States, it was pointed out, spends the smallest fraction of its gross domestic product—one thousandth—on non-military aid of any country.

Matison told Jimmy Carter: "Wherever I go in the world, I'm chasing you," adding that people from Egypt to Nepal have told him how much they respect the former president.

Looking to Institutions

Carter said that while a grassroots type of approach is critical for social change, it's also important to use existing social institutions.

"The way we do this [at the Carter Center] is because I've been president," he said. His position as a world leader, he explained, enables him to enlist the help of the government of the host nations when the Carter Center engages in a project.

He offered the example of a recent situation in Venezuela when he acted as a mediator in a conflict between President Hugo Chavez and opposition groups, which had briefly ousted Chavez from power in April.

"Chavez has a pure brand of democracy" like that practiced in ancient Athens, and often puts his policies to a referendum, Carter said. However, "he has shown very little respect for the institutions that have existed in the past 50 years in Venezuela," Carter added.

He said that although Chavez has broad popular support, Venezuela is the only nation where all of the major sectors in society—media, business, and others—are officially in opposition to the president. "This is the most divided country that is not actually at war that I know," he said.

He added that Chavez and his opposition both need to realize that their antagonism hurts the country and that cooperation is a win-win situation.

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