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

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"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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