October 31, 2005

Israel has an opportunity to play an important role in eradicating poverty.During Bill Gates’ short visit to Israel last week, we had much to show and to be proud of in the field where he made his money. We have much less to show for ourselves in the field in which he spends most of money – in securing access to medicine and healthcare for the world’s poor.

Bill Gates today is no longer just the uber-geek icon of the information age. Given his substantial contribution to improving the lives of the world?s poorest, he has come to represent the new global consciousness under which there is no more room for the notion that ‘your own poor come first’, if only for the simple reason that in a global world, your own poor are the world’s poor.

Jeff Sachs, one of the world’s leading development economists published recently a book titled The End of Poverty – Economic Possibilities for Our Time.

Sachs raises the tantalizing prospect of eradicating extreme poverty in our generation. He argues that humanity has for the first time ever the resources, capacity and technology to do so. Just as previous generations brought about the abolition of slavery, end of colonialism and disappearance of diseases such as smallpox and polio, our generation has the possibility of becoming the generation to eradicate extreme poverty, of which a billion people, mostly in Africa and Asia, suffer.

This is a possibility. Its realization depends on human will. Israel has an opportunity to play an important role in meeting this rare challenge. Israel was established on the basis of the desire to build a homeland for the Jewish People. But it was also established with the noble goal of becoming a model society and a contributor to the community of nations. For decades Israel worked to realize this goal, with lesser or greater success. But this goal is still an important element in Israel’s DNA.

The Israeli experience in creating prosperous agriculture in difficult climactic conditions, in making the best use of water resources and creating new one, in fighting malaria, in building an advanced public health system and building infrastructure is of tremendous value to the world’s poorest nations, in Africa in particular.

During the 1960s, Israel made a rare contribution to Africa’s agricultural and public health development. We must return to Africa and contribute to a ‘green revolution’ that will help the poor extricate themselves from their own poverty and move up the ladder of development. We did it when we were much poorer than we are today. We can do it again, when we are among the world’s richest countries.

It is about time that we got used to being a rich country, and assume the responsibility that comes with the position. We have been suspended in limbo for too long: in reality we are a wealthy and strong country (although with the right policies we could be even more) that behaves like a poor and weak one, constantly in need of aid.

We have grown up, and with maturity comes responsibility, not only for ourselves but also for the world in which we live. The world’s wealthiest nations have repeatedly committed to expending 0.7 percent of their GDP for foreign aid. While only few countries actually meet this target, even those that don’t still expend much more than Israel that expends 0.001 percent at most.

Bill Gates, who is worth $50 billion, transferred more than half this amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that works to realize his vision. Israel, with a GDP of $120 billion spends less than a $1 million per year on foreign aid (not including aliya).

If Israel were to assume the wealthy countries’ responsibilities, we would be spending $1 billion a year for aid, which the world’s poorest countries badly need.

Israel and Israelis love big challenges: Build a country, absorb mass immigration, green the desert, become a technological powerhouse. This is our biggest asset – the restlessness that pushes us constantly forward onto the next challenge. We must keep feeding this spirit, lest we lose it.

We still have our domestic challenges, but we live in a world, and we share a place on this planet. Now we have the capacity, knowledge and, yes, the responsibility to help others make the way we did from fighting malaria to engineering software in Herzliya.

(Originally appeared on Ynetnews)

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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