Development officials have a term for the crises that drain dollars, energy and attention from their work in desperately poor areas of the world. "The tyranny of the urgent," they call it, as millions are channeled into emergency aid for places like Rwanda, Somalia or Bosnia, depleting resources for seemingly less pressing projects like providing clean water to villages or helping countries immunize children, iodize their salt or distribute eyesight-saving doses of vitamin A.
Yet no disaster, man-made or natural, has taken the toll these simple solutions could readily prevent. Each year, malnutrition and a handful of common diseases kill some 7 million young children. Add to that staggering figure the blindness easily preventable by vitamin A, or the iodine deficiency that condemns millions of children to severe mental retardation.
The Republican Congress is eager to reconsider the role of U.S. foreign aid in a post-Cold War world. As it does so, it should take into account the benefits of helping the poorest of the world's poor. In these parts of the world, relatively small amounts of money -- wisely administered -- produce enormous gains. That progress, in turn, helps to stem the tide of economic refugees that crowd into Third World cities, creating potential political hot spots and more immigration pressures on industrialized countries. It also helps to preserve environmental resources that benefit everyone.
These efforts are simple and, by comparison to military aid, inexpensive. Recently, the United Nations Children's Fund released "The Progress of Nations," its annual update on child welfare around the world.
There's much good news to report: Because of efforts begun 10 years ago to combat polio around the world, some 5 million children are walking and running who would otherwise be crippled by that disease. In some areas of the world -- notably Latin America and North America -- the disease has been eradicated. The same could easily be done for measles, which in the developing world kills 1 to 2 million children a year.
The benefits aren't limited to humanitarian concerns. Poverty creates political tensions, which can spill over national borders. And poor countries make poor markets for the goods produced by countries like the United States. Poverty's shadow extends beyond the lives of those it cripples.