NGOs and government

On boarding the American Airlines flight which took me to Haiti recently, I noticed that almost all the passengers were non-Haitians. Most of us did not seem headed for a vacation in the sun. Many wore matching t-shirts with the logo of some charitable aid group. We appeared to be headed to Haiti for similar reasons. We were members of mission teams and representatives of non-governmental, charitable agencies (NGOs).

Haiti has the world’s greatest number of charitable non-governmental agencies per capita of any country in the world. By some estimates as many as 10,000 NGOs are working in Haiti. Following the earthquake of 2010, 10 billion dollars of aid was channeled through those agencies by people who sincerely wanted to help. There is no doubt that many people have been assisted by the uncoordinated and patchy projects of assistance that have sprouted up across the tiny country. Still, as many as 350,000 people remain in tent cities without clean water, electricity, or sewage systems. Schools, medical care, and jobs are insufficient. In spite of an astronomical amount of good work, money and effort by caring people from around the world, Haiti is desperately poor.

It is easy to point to the corrupt and inept government as the cause for Haiti’s problems. To some extent that is right, but it is a republic and leaders are elected by the people, albeit through a questionable process. The government, however, has not been strengthened by international aid. The aid has deliberately been channeled through NGOs and around the government. Public services have been privatized in response to mandates imposed by the World Bank and international aid agencies. Our efforts, which may have destabilized the government, may also have made some problems worse.

In our own country, the House Budget Committee, headed by Rep. Paul Ryan, released their plan for overhauling our country’s budget earlier this week. The committee paints a picture of impending disaster if our future doesn’t include a debt free budget. The plan proposes cuts to programs like food stamps, medicaid, unemployment benefits and other domestic spending programs. It proposes continued increases in military and other defense budgets. Rep. Ryan outlined changes to Medicare which would give younger Americans the option to opt out of Medicare and receive a voucher toward buying insurance from a private insurance company. The plan proposes simplifying the income tax to two tax rates, 10 and 25 or a fifteen percent decrease in the top tax brackets to be offset by eliminated unspecified loopholes and deductions. Many programs which provide a safety net for those on the bottom income brackets would be administered by the states and partially funded by block grants.

Living within our income is a laudable goal. It’s a practice that most of us say we try to live by in our personal lives. However, I know very few who don’t borrow money to buy a house or a car. I only know a couple of farmers who don’t have an operating loan, mortgages on their land or machinery loans. This borrowed money are examples of our personal and business version of deficit spending. If the calls for a federal budget that looks more like a successful business are sincere, then it should, logically, include deficit spending.

Many of the cuts proposed by the House Budget Committee result in a shifting of the costs. Cuts to Medicaid either shift the cost to states or to the poor themselves. Reducing the number of people who qualify for food assistance may cut governmental costs, but who will feed the millions of children who will find the cupboard bare? Cuts to Medicare do not reduce medical spending. Instead those costs will be shifted to the elderly and their families. Eliminating the Affordable Care Act will not result in the millions of Americans without health insurance suddenly finding their new found tax savings enough to pay for private health insurance. The number of benefit dinners for those unable to stay on top of medical bills will need to increase. Increasing revenues by eliminating tax deductions will increase someone’s tax bill. We all assume that the loopholes closed will be the ones used by someone else. Realistically, the tax deductions which remain will be the ones which benefit those interests with the most lobbying dollars in Washington.

The real purpose of the Ryan budget proposal seems to be reducing the size of government, not making it more efficient, more equitable or more fair. The cuts will hit the poor and the middle class the hardest and the benefits will accrue to the wealthiest and the most powerful.

Just as in Haiti, the issues of poverty and hunger in this country are too big and will only be solved by political solutions. NGO’s can make valuable contributions to the needs of individuals and even individual communities. The world is definitely a better place because of individual charity and generosity. Benevolence, cannot, however, provide the wide scale and systemic changes needed. We need a government of the people, by the people and for the people. All the people, not just the top one percent.