If the unrest in the Middle East provides a critical lesson to Americans and their representatives in government, it is this: Poverty and income inequality are a threat to global security.
There are, of course, indisputable humanitarian and moral reasons to fight poverty around the world. Civilized cultures cannot, and should not, tolerate such avoidable human misery. Fixing the problem, of course, is not so simple. Despite generous efforts by foreign governments, aid organizations, and volunteers to help Haiti, for example, the troubled nation remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, just 600 miles off the coast of Florida. All the assistance in the world cannot on its own overcome the difficulties created by the deforestation of the once-lush country, the political upheavals, and other crises.
Nor does direct aid—while often critically necessary—guarantee long-term economic stability. Corruption can prevent aid from getting to the people who need it, and merely sending cash does not create the institutions that will bring self-sufficiency. But empowering local communities can make long-term permanent changes that reduce poverty and inequality. [See a roundup of political cartoons on the Egypt protests.]
The Peace Corps is a proud example of that approach. The McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program is another brilliantly simple but powerful way of helping poor nations. The program, the brainchild of former Sens. George McGovern (a Democrat) and Bob Dole (a Republican), provides school lunches to kids in developing nations. It’s apolitical, non-threatening, and a policy no-brainer; who can argue with giving a hungry kid a sandwich? But it has enormous ripple effects that build civilized societies and empower women. Parents who ordinarily might keep children at home to work will send them to school, since they will be given a free meal. Girls, especially, are more likely to get an education, since sending them to school saves the family the cost of a meal. The female literacy rate goes up, and the teenage pregnancy and early marriage rates go down—and all it cost, financially and politically, was lunch.
Microloans for women in developing countries accomplish similar goals. Give a big check to a government, and the money may or may not make it to the needy. Help a woman start a small rug-weaving business, and you have empowered women, created jobs, and helped provide a home-grown economic base. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is the Obama administration handling the Egypt crisis well?]
Basic decency is enough of a reason to continue such programs with adequate funding. But as we have seen in the Middle East, there is a serious global security issue at stake as well. Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis, and Jordanians aren’t protesting over politics and personal freedoms as much as they are over the disparity of wealth and privilege. Hopefully, the transitions will not bring chaos: The inherent trouble with such revolutions is that there is not always a good plan or team to take the place of the ousted regime. The Middle Eastern leaders now under threat should not have let the public anger reach this level. And policy-makers here should remember those street scenes when balking at assistance programs for the world’s poor.