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In budget cutting, how to make foreign aid less vulnerable

Current foreign aid models don't fit 21st-century needs, a World Bank report suggests. Ending people's fear of their own rulers – through better governance – is the key to development.

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Americans are a generous lot in helping the world’s poor – otherwise why all the TV ads for foreign charities or so many personal mission trips to work in rural villages?

Yet they are stingy toward US foreign aid. They falsely assume it eats up 10 percent of the federal budget (it’s less than 1 percent) and then insist it be the first casualty in spending cuts.

Why this disconnect?

The World Bank, a leading global institution for development, may have an answer – and a solution – in its 2011 annual report, released Sunday. Simply put, private givers and rich nations have focused on the wrong type of aid in recent years.

Past practices of building up schools, roads, and water and health systems can be for naught if a country doesn’t first have better police, a credible justice system, antigraft campaigns, a focus on women, and – most of all – a government that works well with civilian groups that insist on accountability and transparency.

This call for a different aid emphasis, which is really about enabling citizens not to be afraid of their rulers, is in sync with the annual report on human rights issued Friday by the US State Department.

That report found a worrisome trend in rising repression of civil society activists, vulnerable minorities, and Internet users. Help societies end such repression and then “freedom from fear [will make] economies grow as citizens invest, innovate, and participate,” as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton put it.

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