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By James Wolfensohn

James D. Wolfensohn is president of the World Bank.

WASHINGTON -- The horrifying events of Sept. 11 have made this, for many, a time of reflection on how to make the world a better and safer place. The international community has already moved strongly to do so, by confronting terrorism directly and increasing security. We have also seen real collaboration aimed at averting global recession. These are signs of a rising cooperative spirit -- seeking international responses to international problems.

But we must go one step further. The greatest long-term challenge for the world community in building a better world is that of fighting poverty and promoting inclusion worldwide. This is even more imperative now, when we know that because of the terrorist attacks, growth in developing countries will falter, pushing millions more into poverty and causing tens of thousands of children to die from malnutrition, disease and deprivation.

Poverty in itself does not immediately and directly lead to conflict, let alone to terrorism. Rather than responding to deprivation by lashing out at others, the vast majority of poor people worldwide devote their energy to the day-in, day-out struggle to secure income, food and opportunities for their children.

And yet we know that exclusion can breed violent conflict. Careful research tells us that civil wars have often resulted not so much from ethnic diversity -- the usual scapegoat -- as from a mix of factors, of which, it must be recognized, poverty is a central ingredient. And conflict-ridden countries in turn become safe havens for terrorists.

Our common goal must be to eradicate poverty, to promote inclusion and social justice, to bring the marginalized into the mainstream of the global economy and society.

We can do this through steps that help prevent conflicts. Take the example of the Nile Basin Initiative. It is no secret that water shortages pose a challenge to development and peace in North Africa and the Middle East. The initiative is a coming-together of the 10 countries of the Nile River Basin, providing a vehicle for cooperation on a program of sustainable water use and development. This is a good example of multilateral action to prevent conflict and to work directly for poverty reduction.

Equally important, we can help peace set down roots in societies just emerging from conflict. For example in Bosnia, where international support is helping communities come together at the local level on small-scale projects, creating jobs and bridging ethnic differences. Or in post-conflict societies, such as East Timor and Rwanda -- where the international community is helping to rebuild infrastructure, reintegrate soldiers into the society and work force and restore the capacity of governments to manage their economies. Success may take years of hard work, but the alternative is a never-ending cycle of violence.

Central to conflict prevention and peace-building must be strategies for promoting social cohesion and inclusion. Inclusion means ensuring that all have opportunities for gainful employment, and that societies avoid wide income inequalities that can threaten social stability. But inclusion goes well beyond incomes. It also means seeing that poor people have access to education, health care and basic services, such as clean water, sanitation and power. It means enabling people to participate in key decisions that affect their lives. That is what we mean by empowerment.

But can we really make progress against poverty? Recent history tells us that we can. After increasing steadily for 200 years, the total number of people living in poverty worldwide started to fall 15 or 20 years ago. Over 20 years, the number of poor people has fallen by perhaps 200 million, even as the global population grew by 1.6 billion. This has been a direct result of the better policies that developing countries have been putting in place.

And progress extends well beyond income measures. Education and health have also improved. Since 1970, the proportion of those in the developing world who are illiterate has fallen sharply, from 47 percent to 25 percent; and since 1960, life expectancy has risen from 45 to 64 years.

Yet we must not underestimate the challenges that remain. Half the developing world -- some 2 billion people -- live in countries that have seen little growth in the last two decades. And even in those developing countries that have been doing relatively well, hundreds of millions of people are marginal to the progress of growth. As a result, well over 1 billion people, around 20 percent of the population of this planet, live on less than $1 a day.

And the scale of the challenge is not only immense but rising. In the next 30 years the population of the world will increase from 6 to 8 billion. Virtually all those 2 billion will be in the poor countries of the world.

In the wake of the tragedy of Sept. 11, facing these challenges, and taking multilateral action to meet them, are more important than ever. What should be our agenda?

First, scale up foreign aid. This may be much harder in an international economy that is slowing, but the needs and the stakes were never greater. Aid to Africa fell from $36 per person in 1990 to $20 today. And yet it is Africa, a continent now making great efforts to improve, that may feel most sharply the poverty fallout of the terrorist attacks. We cannot let Africa fall off the map as we turn our attention elsewhere.

Second, reduce trade barriers. The World Trade Organization summit must go ahead, and it must be a development round, one that is motivated primarily by a desire to use trade as a tool for poverty reduction and development. Substantial trade liberalization would be worth tens of billions of dollars to poor countries, and yet we know that at times of economic downturn there are increased pressures for protectionism. We must fight these pressures.

Third, focus development assistance to ensure good results. This means improving the climate for investment, productivity, growth and jobs as well as empowering and investing in poor people so that they can fully participate in growth.

And, fourth, act internationally on global issues. This includes not only confronting terrorism, internationalized crime and money laundering but also combating communicable diseases like AIDS and malaria, building an equitable global trading system, safeguarding financial stability to prevent deep and sudden crises, and protecting the natural resources and environment on which so many poor people depend for their livelihoods.

And all this we must do with developing countries in the driving seat -- designing their own programs and making their own choices.

But we must also bring in the private sector, civil society, faith-based groups and international and national donors. Ours must be a global coalition -- to fight terrorism, yes, but also to fight poverty.

Whether we take up that challenge is up to us. Some generations have had the courage. Others have turned away. Our parents and grandparents responded to the unspeakable horrors of World War II not by withdrawing but by coming together to build an international system. By contrast, the choices taken after World War I led to calamity. Which course we choose will determine not just our future but whether our children and grandchildren can live in peace.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/4/01)