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J. BRIAN ATWOOD: What I’m suggesting is that if the United States increases its aid in the next 10 years by $50 billion only-that’s $5 billion a year, or in effect a McDonald’s meal for four here in the United States per year-we can be the leader in getting a major initiative undertaken to attack poverty, disease, and climate change.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, lending a helping hand. And, the view from the front row.
hELEN THOMAS: When you’re in the White House you’re covering the president. You live on the fringes of his life.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Every year the US government sends billions of dollars in aid to developing countries and American corporations and organizations give millions more. Proponents say the aid lends a helping hand to those in need and at the same time helps promote freedom, democracy, and basic human rights. Critics charge the money should be spent to help struggling American citizens and communities instead of on populations halfway around the world.
MCHUGH: J. Brian Atwood is familiar with both sides of the sometimes emotional debate. He is the former head of the United States Agency for International Development-USAID, and now serves as President of Citizens International, a public sector development group. I recently spoke with Brian Atwood about the trials and tribulations of development aid, his tenure at USAID, and his new job with Citizens International.
J. BRIAN ATWOOD: Well, it’s an enterprise that seeks to bring additional development resources to countries in transition, in particular. We’re working in Nigeria right now. And also it attempts to accelerate what the donor agencies want to do but sometimes lack confidence in doing because of compromised institutions within a country like Nigeria. What we’ve done is to setup a nonprofit foundation in Nigeria with a Nigerian board, so the hope is when we have that setup-and we have a wonderful Nigerian who is a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin who runs the New Nigeria Foundation that we’ve set up, and a staff-that the donors will see this as a great channel to channel money into, resources for projects into Nigeria. Likewise, when we get public-we already have a UNDP grant-when we have this public money we then go to private companies and say, “We have this money to spend in Nigeria. We can spend it in the region you care about, but we want you to match the funds.” In my opinion the model that will make the concept of public/private partnerships really work. I think a lot of people use the phrase, but they haven’t really come up with something that works. So…
MCHUGH: Where would you say are some of the most underdeveloped areas of the world?
ATWOOD: A lot of them are in Africa, unfortunately. That, as a region, is certainly the most underdeveloped. I think in second place, would come some of the South Asian countries, with the largest number of poor people. That doesn’t mean that a country like India doesn’t have a very sophisticated government that’s done well in recent years in terms of economic growth, but it’s a country of a billion people and maybe 700 million are in the poverty category.
MCHUGH: You have spent a number of years working on development issues in the public sector and now you’re working on the same issues, but from the private sector. Is there a difference?
ATWOOD: Sure. When you’re representing the US government people take notice, even when your budget is being cut, as mine was. You’re speaking for the US government. But you know there is a great willingness to try to have the donor agencies, because their budgets have been cut across the board, to work with the private sector. So if you can create a public/private partnership, you know, it’s almost magic. You open doors. And we’ve had a lot of cooperation from Jim Wolfensohn at the World Bank, from Mark Malloch Brown of the UN Development Program. And others-the African Development Program and the like. So, what we’re, what I’m trying to do is the same mission. I’m trying to help poor people in Nigeria. I see Nigeria as a country in transition to democracy, struggling with new democratic institutions. And so the mission is really the same, whether it’s public or private.
MCHUGH: Do the goals of public versus private development sometimes collide?
ATWOOD: They could. The reason that we’re in existence is to assure that they don’t. When they collide you have a company, for example-and I’m not going to name companies-but a company that has its own narrow interests, and they decide, “OK, we’re gonna do something for the community.” But in effect the community says, looks at the company and says, “They’re only out after their own interests. So if they’re gonna do this for us, we’ll ask them to do something else as well.” The real issue is whether what they do is just a gift or is just charity, or is it something that’s sustainable over time. And that’s what I think, if companies want to work with us, we can assure that they can achieve sustainable results that will be long lasting and they won’t be in the position of being blackmailed by a community that doesn’t trust them.
MCHUGH: You mentioned the term, “public/private partnership.” That seems to me to be a new buzzword so to speak…
MCHUGH: … in the development world. How new is that?
ATWOOD: Well, the last five years or so, I suppose, when budgets started to go down. People said, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of money being transferred from the first world to the developing world.” What they didn’t look at was the fact that it was going to the richer countries of the developing world. It was going to places that already had achieved a certain amount of development. But they said, “Somehow we need to capture this and see whether or not we can augment the development resources that we have through the public sector.” And that’s fine. They talked a good game. They talked a lot about it. I mean, everyone from the president of the World Bank to the head of USAID to the head of, to the Secretary General of the United Nations, has talked about public/private partnerships. But it’s been very difficult to really make happen. Because if a private company gives money over to the World Bank or the UN, the money is no longer identified with them, per se. And so they don’t get credit for it. And so, so it just hasn’t happened. And I think the model that we have created in Nigeria, which is strongly supported by the President of Nigeria, gives them an opportunity to contribute to something, gives them a degree of credit and also creates a more secure environment for their operations. So I think they like that idea and I think it works.
MCHUGH: Critics of overseas development say it’s nothing more than a handout to citizens or countries that just aren’t trying hard enough, or, that the aid ends up in the hands of dictators or a select few. What do you say to those sentiments?
ATWOOD: A lot of the criticism of foreign aid came out of the Cold War period when a lot of the aid was politicized. It was given to dictators. There were not criteria because the criteria were political. We were trying to keep people on our side of the ledger in the East-West struggle. Nowadays people understand the importance of real people on the ground participating in the development process. They have to have a stake in it if it’s going to work. We have the luxury nowadays of not having to give money to bad governments or to governments that abuse human rights. If a government is abusing human rights, if it doesn’t set up a system wherein the people can have their voices heard within government, then you have no possibility of actually practicing what I call participatory development, where the people are involved. Now in those situations you don’t just turn your back; you may be able to do some things. You may be able to offer education programs, literacy programs; you may be able to offer health benefits and programs; and do humanitarian assistance for poor people. You may even want to do at the local level some democratization work, which in the long run may cause the people to rise up and throw those dictators out. But you certainly don’t want to work in partnership with a bad government that doesn’t trust its own people, because you’re not going to get anywhere. And they may pay lip service to economic reform or whatever but they’re not actually going to practice it. So, I think today we have a more of an opportunity to achieve development results than we had during the Cold War.
MCHUGH: I think that there is a perception that overseas development has to be large, large sums of money in order to be effective. Is that really true?
ATWOOD: Yes and no. Absolutely no when it comes to, you know, the actual programs. You don’t throw money at problems. But, today we have huge problems that require resources. For example, a lot of people are worrying and concerned, as rightly so, about the AIDS epidemic in Africa or the fact that 2,000 kids a week are dying of malaria in Africa. And everyone is focusing on the medicines. Now this is a perfectly appropriate place to focus, especially when pharmaceutical companies are charging huge amounts of money for medicines and charging a lot less in the West, because there’s a market there, they think.
But the other answer to the problem is the infrastructure-the health infrastructure, the surveillance systems, and the like. And if they don’t exist, even if the medicines were available at an inexpensive rate, they’re not going to be effective. But the infrastructure is going to cost a huge amount of money. And that money right now is not available to the donor agencies. So more resources are necessary. And today what I’m suggesting is that if the United States increases its aid in the next 10 years by $50 billion only-that’s $5 billion a year, or in effect a McDonald’s meal for four, a family of four, here in the United States per year-we can be the leader in getting a major initiative undertaken to attack poverty, disease, and the third leg of the stool is the problem of climate change, because it is really having a very negative effect on poor people around the world.
MCHUGH: Do you strongly believe, then, that overseas development should be a big tool in US foreign policy.
ATWOOD: I think it should be a big tool in US foreign policy because we seem to be looking back at the threats to the United States. If you look ahead what you see are nontraditional threats to our interests. Not only is this a tool for doing good and advancing our values as a nation, but it’s also designed to prevent an increase in alienation on the part of poor people against the rich countries. There’s already that degree of alienation; the worst manifestation of it is terrorism. We’re attacked, our system is attacked; globalization is attacked because it looks like the West is setting the rules for the poor. So it seems to me foreign policy and even security rationale for doing more to help the poor, because poverty creates in the worst case, terrorism; it also creates refugees; it creates instability; it creates economic problems; but it also denies us the markets that we need to expand our own economy. But it also creates environmental deterioration that is affecting our people. Then, of course, it creates infectious diseases that we now increasingly worry about in terms of our own people.
MCHUGH: Microlending programs, or the process of lending small amounts of money to small business entrepreneurs in developing regions is one way to give aid. Is that concept catching on and is it effective?
ATWOOD: It’s one of the more exciting ways to attack extreme poverty. There are about 1.3 billion people in the world that live in extreme poverty, meaning they make less than a dollar a day-most cases much less. And it’s an opportunity, gives people credit-it gives people an opportunity to start a very small business. What’s really important, though, is to combine the microcredit revolution, which is really important, with the whole notion of economic reform and deregulation that would enable those microbusinesses to become small businesses and then medium-size businesses, and become competitive in the global economy. The worst thing we can do is to basically trade on the low wage systems of these countries or extract their natural resources, basically paying rent to them to take their vital products out of the ground, because that will condemn these nations to be poor forever. What we really need to do is to help them develop the economic systems that will enable their businesses to be competitive on the global scale. It’s the only real way to achieve sustainable development.
MCHUGH: When you were at USAID you started a program called “Lessons Without Borders.” And as I understand it, the goal was to take the lessons learned in overseas development and apply it to situations here in the United States. Was the program effective?
ATWOOD: I think it was very effective, but limited. We didn’t have a lot of money to do it and we had to go out and get private money to do it. And we went around to a lot of cities. In one city, Baltimore, for example, the mayor got so excited about it that he raised his own money to send delegations from Baltimore and they were sent to Kenya and Jamaica to look at USAID programs there. They came back and in one instance, I mean they saw the way we did our vaccination program for children, and they increased the vaccination level in Baltimore from 43 percent to 92 percent-a very effective way to do it. And what we, I think, convinced people in all of the cities and areas-we went to Appalachia as well-was that development people who work overseas have the same mission as development people, community development people, who are trying to work with the poor here in this country. I think it was a very positive message. It helped get USAID’s message across as to what it was and did as a, as an agency. It was not that terrible foreign aid agency that was operating somehow contrary to the interests of the American people.
MCHUGH: In addition to your various development roles you’ve recently, at least in recent years, have served on the UN Secretary General’s Panel on Peace Operations and also on USAID efforts in Kosovo. Tell me about those experiences.
ATWOOD: Kosovo was very tragic. We had been pursuing a policy of trying to stop the Serbs from violating the human rights of Kosovar citizens. And during that bombing campaign the Serbs very, very cynically used people as refugees. They tried to disrupt our operations. They tried to destabilize countries in the region. So I went to Macedonia and I went to Albania, where there were just thousands and thousands of refugees that were with, the international community was trying to absorb. I think we did a pretty good job and fortunately the war ended when it did. Otherwise I’m not sure that those countries could have survived.
MCHUGH: Do you have any hopes and dreams for the future? Your personal hopes and dreams for the future?
ATWOOD: Oh, I hope I can continue to contribute for as long as possible. I have hopes and dreams-I have a four-year-old daughter and I have a lot of fears. I have fears that she’s going to grow up in a world where climate change is going to become so drastic that we’re going to be seeing diseases here in our part of the world that we’ve never seen before; that we’re going to see rising tides and even more violent weather than we’ve seen in the past. We’re going to see all sorts of problems and most of those problems are going to afflict the poorest people in the world. And those people gradually are going to see-especially if the United States is the country that is causing the greenhouse gas emissions more than any other-they’re going to become very angry about this. So I hope I can play a role in the future in calling attention to this to my fellow citizens and to others in the world, ‘cause we need to get at this problem. And we have to attack poverty as well. If we don’t do that we’re, we’re signing our own death warrant.
MCHUGH: J. Brian Atwood is President of Citizens International.
PORTER: Helen Thomas, dean of the White House press corps, next on Common Ground.
HELEN THOMAS: I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything. You’re only as good as your last story. That’s a cliché in our business. And, you know, there are always more mountains to climb.
MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: Among her colleagues, Helen Thomas is regarded as the dean of the White House press corps. To the public she is best known as the “Lady in Red,” who for more than 60 years ended every press conference by saying, “Thank you, Mr. President.”
MCHUGH: Helen Thomas covered eight American presidents, dating back to the Kennedy administration, before retiring from United Press International last year. I recently talked with Helen Thomas about her award-winning career, her very public retirement from UPI, and the latest projects in her life. She began by telling me what sparked her interest in journalism.
HELEN THOMAS: Well, I saw my byline in the high school newspaper, when I was a sophomore. Started working on the school paper. I loved the whole ambiance. I loved the fact that I could be nosy all the time. I realized that it was a profession that was an education every day and that we would never stop learning or being a part of the world.
MCHUGH: You actually covered the White House both during and after the Cold War. Did reporting the news and the urgency of reporting the news, change after the Wall fell in 1988?
THOMAS: Reporting changed with the Watergate scandal at the White House. I think we became much more hard driving, tougher, more skeptical. We had been told untruths. And I think we really began to look at ourselves and wonder why we had been so gullible. So I think there was, in addition to the soul searching we realized that secrecy is so endemic in government. It wasn’t a grand awakening ‘cause we certainly should have known that. But I do think that Watergate was the turning point.
MCHUGH: And so it really didn’t change much after the Cold War ended?
THOMAS: No, it wasn’t a question of the Cold War. We cover wars hot, cold, indifferent, whatever. No, it was a question of the presidency. When you’re in the White House you’re covering the president. You live on the fringes of his life.
MCHUGH: You accompanied President Nixon on his historic trip to China and you were the only print journalist to do so.
THOMAS: Only woman print journalist. No, there were lots and lots of newsmen. But there was one woman covering for radio, one for television, and myself in the print field-as women. We were not as women, we were women reporters.
MCHUGH: What was that trip like? Tell me a little bit about that trip?
THOMAS: It was like landing on the moon. We had no relations with China for 20 years. The US had really broken off any relations since ‘49, with the communist takeover. So that everything we rode, everything we saw, everything we felt, was a story. And for eight days no reporter wanted to sleep for fear of missing something. It’s a totally different society, a communist society. But we had been to the Soviet Union, then, the former Soviet Union, which was much more brutal in its whole aspect of communism. This was a little more subtle. But it was there. Everyone was dressed alike. They had, you know, the message was, they were all on the same page, and so forth. But totally fascinating. And we knew then, that certainly China wanted to, to be a part of the world. And also that President Nixon was trying to divide and conquer because the new Soviet Union and the Chinese were deadly enemies. So he could break that-put a wedge in there and, which he did.
MCHUGH: Did you accompany President Reagan on his historic trip to Moscow, when he hugged Gorbachev?
THOMAS: Yes I did. I certainly did.
MCHUGH: Did you witness the hug in Red Square?
THOMAS: Of course.
MCHUGH: What was going through your mind?
THOMAS: Well, I think that suddenly the evil empire was no more in Gorbachev’s-in Reagan’s eyes. And Reagan, when he came back I asked him if he thought he had, if he had gone to Moscow 10 years ago, 20 years ago, would he have learned more and understood more about the people, that they laugh, they cry, they, they’re human, and the Russians were not people who walked like, who were bears and walked like-men who liked like bears-that was the cliché. And he said, “Nope. They’ve changed.” [laughs] So, he wasn’t going to make a concession. No, it was a fascinating trip. But it did change him. And it made him more conciliatory toward peace. Thank goodness for that.
MCHUGH: What is your most memorable foreign trip?
THOMAS: I think China. Definitely. Because it was like landing on Mars. Everything was a story, from the way our hotel rooms looked like, the way people, what we ate; it’s all the things that were just-it would be mundane and no editor would ask you what you’re having for breakfast, but they did on this trip.
MCHUGH: Is there one international story that you were never able to cover that in retrospect you wished you had?
THOMAS: I think I was very, very lucky. I’ve been able to cover a lot of things, a lot of history. And at the White House you have instant history. I suppose I would have liked to have interviewed Abraham Lincoln.
MCHUGH: Of all of the world leaders that you have interviewed, who do you admire the most?
THOMAS: Who do I admire the most? Well, I think that Roosevelt certainly was the man of the 20th century. Getting us through the Great Depression, World War II, and having the affliction of infantile paralysis. But my favorite president was Kennedy.
MCHUGH: And why is that?
THOMAS: Well, because he was the most inspired.
MCHUGH: How would you describe the current state of international affairs reporting in the American media?
THOMAS: Well, you know, we’re so limited now. We have one newspaper towns, so it’s very difficult. And most of the big newspapers have closed their bureaus in the capitals. They don’t have many reporters; maybe London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow. But it’s a little different and I think we’re not getting all the news that we should be getting. At the same time, we are really bombarded with news. CNN can go anywhere in the world in five minutes.
MCHUGH: How do we get folks interested? How do we get American journalists interested in reporting on foreign affairs? Even more so than they are now?
THOMAS: Because it’s one world. Because we are a village. We’re not removed, we’re not isolated, we have to be interested. We have to be interested when our plane is forced to land in China. I mean, that’s it as far I’m-I think that all the news affects all of us anywhere it happens in the world.
MCHUGH: How has the business of news changed in all of the years that you’ve been a journalist?
THOMAS: The advent of Internet; the fact that Internet has no editors; that journalism is impacted in a sense that we have to watch now, that our standards are going down the drain unless we do protect them. Everyone wants to get into the act. We’ve all been discovered. Politicians almost automatically now go into television when they leave those jobs, and so forth. They love it. They like being-they get the big ID if you’re on camera and so forth. So, it’s a field that, where everybody wants to get into.
MCHUGH: You were known for your tough and hard questions and questions that even you yourself have described as sometimes rude.
THOMAS: I don’t think I’m rude, really. I think that the questions should be asked. Maybe you could soften the language at times. But I don’t consider myself rude.
MCHUGH: Were you ever afraid that you had crossed the line with a tough question?
THOMAS: There’s no line. Who’s drawing it? As far as I’m concerned there are no bad questions, only lousy answers. Legitimacy is legitimacy. We asked Clinton everything in the book, for goodness sake. Nobody talked about a line there, especially the ultra right, who were out to really nail him on every point.
MCHUGH: Do you miss the front row?
THOMAS: I’m in the front row. I still have my seat. Been in the front row on the two news conferences that President Bush held in the press room. So I’m very lucky. I’ve been voted an honorary seat in a way.
MCHUGH: How do you attend press conferences now?
THOMAS: I write two columns a week for Hearst newspapers. So I go to the White House every day when I’m in Washington.
MCHUGH: So really, not much has changed then, in your life?
THOMAS: Well, writing for a wire service is different because you stick to the facts strictly. When you write a column you’re supposed to express your opinion. So it’s a little different world. And people say you’re biased and I say, “I’m supposed to write my opinion and you probably disagree with it, but that doesn’t make it not so.”
MCHUGH: You have accomplished so much in your life. Have you accomplished everything that you set out to do? Or are there still things you want to do?
THOMAS: I don’t think I’ve accomplished anything. You’re only as good as your last story. That’s a cliché in our business. And, you know, there are always more mountains to climb.
MCHUGH: Journalist Helen Thomas is a syndicated columnist with the Hearst Corporation. Her recently penned memoir of her career is titled, Front Row At the White House: My Life And Times. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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