New world order

An economic boom that has helped lift 500 million Chinese out of poverty is transforming China from a recipient to a donor of foreign aid.

Published December 15, 2004 2:55PM (EST)

China is set to complete the transition from aid recipient to international donor in the next year, the head of the world's biggest humanitarian agency said Tuesday as he announced plans to phase out food support for Beijing and introduce a new period of cooperation to help poor countries in Asia and Africa. In a sign of how market economics and disease have transformed the world order, James Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, said the shift was a sign of China's success in combating poverty, while Africa had become less able to help itself because of the AIDS epidemic.

The WFP will make its last donation to China next year, marking the end of a 25-year program that started in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and supported more than 30 million hungry people. "At the end of 2005, we will no longer be an active, operating program in China. China will no longer need us," Morris said. In recent years, that program has been steadily reduced as China's economy has soared with average annual growth rates of 9 percent, which have helped to lift up to 500 million people out of poverty.

"This achievement is unprecedented in the past 50 years, maybe for all time," said the WFP chief at a press conference in Beijing. "Given the Chinese experience, we have as much to learn from China as China can learn from us." The praise is deserved but also self-interested. While the U.S. and other rich nations review their commitments to multinational bodies, the WFP is hoping for greater backing from rising powers such as China and India.

Morris said he had received a promise of increased Chinese support from Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, although no details were given. "The commitment was to do more," he said. "I did not ask for specifics."

The transition has already begun -- albeit on a very small scale. This year, China donated $24 million to the WFP. The bulk of these funds went toward operations in China's poorest provinces. Only $1.5 million was earmarked for international humanitarian work, but Morris said this was a good start.

In particular, he said the agency needed more assistance in Africa, where AIDS has struck down more than a quarter of the population of some sub-Saharan nations. "I'm hoping over time China will become more supportive of our work in Africa," he said. "I think we'll see over the next 25 years, China will become one of our most important friends."

He also called upon Beijing to support the WFP's program in North Korea, where low nutrition intakes have stunted the population so badly that the average 7-year-old boy is eight inches shorter than his South Korean counterpart. But Beijing appears hesitant to assume the mantle of global care provider -- and the financial burden that comes with it. "China is still a developing country. We have 29 million people living in poverty," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Jianchao. "China will make a donation according to its own capacity."

Among the biggest problems facing the Chinese government is a growing gap between its rich coastal cities and poor inland farming areas. Among the worst hit is Gansu province, where the the WFP will abandon a program that supports minority communities living in some of the world's most squalid conditions. Morris said he was convinced that the Chinese government was willing and able to deal with such problems by itself.

History, however, shows that communities in every country have a habit of forgetting the poor once they become rich. Morris pointed out that it would cost only $5 billion to feed the 300 million children currently living in hunger around the world, but these funds have not been forthcoming.

By Jonathan Watts

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