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Linking the eradication of poverty directly to democracy, Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development addressed the ARCO Forum of Public Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School Wednesday night. The "reason why some countries are poor and others develop centers around democratic governance," he said. The evening also included formal responses from the heads of CARE and Save the Children.
An alum of the Kennedy School, Natsios emphasized that "good governance is critical to sustain development." Democratic governments have strong institutions, such as a free press to as well as intricate balances of power designed to constrain corruption. "Failed states are a failure of government. It is a failure to mediate all the tensions that exist in a society," he said, citing Afghanistan and Sudan as examples.
Strong local government and civil society are also critical to the elimination of poverty, Natsios suggested. In China, he cited a successful project where village officials were taught how to conduct competitive elections with the "revolutionary" notion that if candidates didn't fulfill their promises they could be removed. In Kenya, he said, where civil conflict could easily erupt, a rich tradition of civil society has been a key stabilizing factor.
Additionally, poverty cannot be reduced he said, if you don't improve a country's economy and infrastructure. "Growing the economy is also critical for sustaining development," he said noting that the farmer who doesn't have roads to get his produce to market has no incentive to produce more.
Kennedy School Dean Joseph Nye asked Peter Bell, President of CARE, to comment Natsio's on address. Bell agreed on the importance of governance, but disagreed with the amount of emphasis. "I'd be wary of any single panacea to solve the development problem," he argued, noting the roles that civil conflict as well as racial, ethnic and gender discrimination have played in countries like Angola and Sudan. He suggested that "there are a number of different factors coming together to overcome poverty."
The second respondent, Charles McCormick, CEO of Save the Children cautioned that democracy has different meanings in different cultures and thus there are different types of democratic governance. "Democracy has many variables." In some countries there is democracy in some institutions and not in others, he said. And while lauding democracy as a noble goal, he asked what do we do "until democracy can be real? What are the ways to allocate resources in those kinds of situations?"
Several members of the audience suggested that the dollar amount of U.S. financial assistance was woefully insufficient. Natsios noted the Bush Administration's Millennium Challenge Account created to meet international goals of cutting poverty in half by 2015. The fund will distribute an additional five billion dollars only for countries that meet certain democratic criteria, he said.