Library / 6 November 2005
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World not always black and white; it's sometimes checkered
by Jerry Large, The Seattle Times
6 November 2005 – Only in hokey old movies do the good guys wear white hats and the bad guys black ones.

The real world is a sea of checkered hats, in which one person might be part of the solution on one issue and part of the problem on another, doing good with one hand and bad with the other.

Countries are like that, too. We are probably especially confusing to outsiders in that regard. Just look at some recent headlines about Americans on the world stage.

Last week we read that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was stepping up to do something significant about malaria.

The foundation made $258.3 million in new grants, mostly for research on a promising vaccine.

Last year, worldwide spending on malaria research amounted to $323 million, only three-tenths of 1 percent of health research and development investment.

Malaria isn't a problem in the United States, but it is devastating in many poor countries, especially in Africa where it kills 2,000 children every day.

One story quoted Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates saying, "If those children were in rich countries, we would have headlines, we'd take action."

We're not bad people, but sometimes we're not as good as we'd like to think.

The tech boom that gave Gates the wealth that fuels his good-American philanthropy is also part of another side of us.

We create a lot of high-tech waste, and it seems some of the companies that dispose of it for us do so at the expense of people in poor countries.

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story about a report titled, "The Digital Dump: Exporting Reuse and Abuse to Africa." The report was written by a Seattle-based group called the Basel Action Network. Like the Gates Foundation, it is trying to do something good in the world.

Obsolete computer equipment contains lots of toxic materials, so you can't just dump it into the garbage. Responsible Americans often take their old computers and monitors to companies that promise to recycle them.

Some of those companies, in turn, have been sending the computers to poor countries in Africa and Asia, closing the digital divide, except most of the machines are unusable. They wind up in landfills or the materials are reused unsafely.

(King County maintains a list of recyclers in its Take It Back Network, who have signed an agreement not to dump waste in poor countries.)

Americans are opportunistic. We like to make a buck where we can, but we also feel other peoples' pain.

The world has suffered an especially intense string of natural disasters recently, from the Indonesian tsunami to flooding in Guatemala, multiple hurricanes and an earthquake in Pakistan. Americans have given generously to help the victims.

People can always count on Americans to help when there has been a natural disaster.

And individual Americans, like Gates are helping people in other parts of the world year round.

The government and businesses have a more mixed record.

Just last week, The Wall Street Journal had an article on a tussle over revamping the U.S. food-aid program, which has long been a mixed blessing to receiving countries.

The current food-aid program got its start in the 1950s as a way to manage surpluses that might have depressed prices in the United States; keep prices here stable and do some good abroad.

The program is weighed down by domestic interests. Most of the food has to be bought from American farmers and shipped on American vessels for instance.

In 2003, the article said, the United States spent $57 million to send grain to alleviate a food shortage in northern Uganda. That looks great on paper. American farmers and shippers made money.

But in other parts of Uganda, farmers had surplus crops that could have been bought at half the price of American grain and obviously shipped for less.

The Ugandan government didn't have the money to do that, but we could have spent less and strengthened Ugandan farmers, thereby supporting self sufficiency.

There is a lot of opposition to a proposal to make food aid more efficient, because Americans wouldn't benefit so much. So we keep wearing a confusing checkered hat.

FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. The Basel Action Network is making this article available in our efforts to advance understanding of ecological sustainability and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
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