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Gains in fighting world poverty

Handing more money to corrupt, Third World governments hardly puts a dent in the fight against poverty. That's why this week's United Nations meeting on global development marked an important turn. Rich nations didn't just promise more money; they conditioned that aid on poor countries becoming more open and accountable.

President Bush and European leaders made a significant commitment to help poor nations make some immediate gains. Bush's plan to increase foreign development assistance by 50 percent, to $15-billion by 2006, raises the floor for future spending and creates a magnet for private investment. The Europeans have pledged $20-billion over that same period. Those are huge sums, even though they may not be enough to reach the United Nations' goal for halving poverty by 2015. Child welfare, literacy and public health programs, the backbone of every economy, would get a tremendous boost.

The Sept. 11 attacks changed the priorities of donor countries. At the U.N. conference in Monterrey, Mexico, a string of world leaders made a point of acknowledging the need to confront poverty and hopelessness. And that is where accountability comes in. Poverty alone does not breed terror. But the anger of poor people can turn violent when they see their governments siphon resources, either through corruption or waste. President Bush's plan recognizes the role that fighting poverty can play in the long battle against global terrorism. The scope of the aid program also should encourage closer coordination between the United States, Europe and Arab states.

There is nothing wrong with tying aid to social and political reform. Sending billions overseas is a waste of money if the funds don't ease poverty and human misery. The aid is part of a larger package to improve health, housing and schools, promote trade and make political and financial institutions more transparent, accountable and efficient. It is encouraging to see this integrated strategy gaining broader support.

Much of the credit for enlisting skeptics into the fight against poverty goes to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He has passion for the cause and has brought new credibility to the United Nations. He has succeeded in dispelling the political myth that foreign aid is a one-way street. The talks in Monterrey were significant for another reason _ they brought together heads of state, bankers and liberal activists alike. The challenge now is to stay the course.