By Ron Walters
-Guest Columnist-

( – Until recently, I had never heard of the latest disease now ravaging Angola in West Africa, called “Marburg.” Something like the dreaded Ebola virus or HIV/AIDS, it spreads through the transmission of body fluids and has killed 235 people in that country. That is why international health officials have raced into Angola to attempt to cut it off from spreading, since the virus builds and builds in the body even after killing the person. It has been called a virtual “time-bomb.”

The more you hear about these diseases that appear to have the capacity to wipe out large sectors of the African population, it seems that they all have one basic root–they breed in areas where there is little modern education and where gut-wrenching poverty is the way of life. Yet, it does not appear that reducing global poverty has the same urgency in this country as making war.

For example, it was recently reported that the world’s richest nations, the G-8, failed to reach an agreement on how to erase $40 billion of so-called “debt” from the world’s poorest nations. I say “so-called” because the very idea of there being an African debt to the United States or Europe is a laughable proposition: Black people sitting in America have not been paid for the hundreds of years of slavery they endured, and African countries have not been reimbursed for the theft of natural and human resources that Europeans took from that continent.


While Britain has proposed doubling economic assistance to Africa, and has begun to pay off 10 percent of the debt of 22 of the poorest countries, the United States has put forth a very different plan, opposed by the European countries and the World Bank. The U.S. proposed reducing the debt, while at the same time reducing the money available for low interest loans to poor countries. In other words, it doesn’t want to come out a net loser in the deal, so it pays for reducing the debt of poor countries with the money it contributes for the development.

There exists in the United States a real resentment about dealing with such problems right now, even a feeling that the poor have made these problems themselves so they have to fix them.

The Bush administration just doesn’t get it. It is difficult to make real progress with respect to a number of social problems unless you are able to deal effectively with poverty. In this country, for example, we expect excellent educational performance in areas that are racked by poverty, really expecting the school–a community institution–to perform in ways different from the environment in which it exists. While some schools do, they are the exception. The same thought exists with respect to HIV/AIDS, originally a problem of homosexual males that has become heterosexually transmitted in the context of poor, drug-infested communities.

So far, there has been a great deal of game-playing in the field of poverty elimination with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, demanding poor countries arrange their economies to qualify for the latest program that promises to impact on their economic condition. For most countries, if they could qualify for foreign assistance according to the rules laid down by the World Bank–have “transparency” and good management in government, have effective monetary arrangements and legislation to utilize foreign assistance, have trained money managers, and etc.–they would probably not need it.

In his most recent book, “The End of Poverty,” Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia has written that essentially poor people need direct financial investment in their societies to build economic infrastructure, to pay for urgent health issues, to construct universal education, to perfect their governmental systems and the like. Then, he says, they will be able to more successfully deal with their own poverty by their connection to the international economic system.

We know that he is right because it has taken 50 years to cut the official Black poverty rate in half in the Black community in America and we live in the most economically dynamic society in the world. What I wonder is how many Black people have to die while the leading countries in the world and the major international institutions come to terms with how to really deal with poverty.

(Ron Walters is the director of the African American Leadership Institute in the Academy of Leadership and professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland-College Park.)