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UN's Early Warning

YOU can pay me now, or you can pay me later'' was a popular advertising slogan a while back, the idea being that spending a little on car maintenance now saves a big repair down the road.

A United Nations report issued last week makes a similar point regarding developing countries - except that it is talking about saving billions of dollars and thousands of human lives.

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The UN Development Program's Human Development Report 1994 identifies potential future world trouble spots by compiling a Human Development Index for 173 countries. Those that rank low on the index, which measures life expectancy, educational attainment, and basic purchasing power, could become the next Somalia or Rwanda. ``It is far cheaper and far more humane to act early and ... to address the root causes of human security rather than their tragic consequences,'' says James Gustave Speth, UNDP administrator.

Based on the index, a careful eye should be kept on 13 countries near crisis, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, and Zaire. Four countries (Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, and Brazil) had regions near crisis.

The report notes how preventive action - aid and diplomacy - can be cost effective. For example, investing only $10 billion in health care and family-planning education worldwide at the beginning of the 1980s could have obviated the need to spend much of the estimated $240 billion paid out during the decade on AIDS research and related lost productivity.

Among the report's recommendations, two stand out:

r ``20-20 compacts'': A donor country would allocate 20 percent of its aid money directly to human development: education, health care, clean drinking water, family planning, and nutrition programs. The receiving country promises to spend 20 percent of its budget on the same programs.

r Nations should reduce worldwide military spending by 3 percent per year over the next five years, creating a $460 billion ``peace dividend'' to finance the world's social needs.

Policymakers around the world should take note of this useful research - and heed its warnings.

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