You may say he's a dreamer

In a cynical town Donald Steinberg is an unapologetic optimist.

Steinberg, 60, is the deputy administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the human development arm of the State Department. He has spent much of his life working overseas trying to improve the lives of impoverished and often mistreated people. For his efforts, he has had malaria eight times.

I met him when attending a day-long State Department briefing on global affairs for members of the national Association of Opinion Journalists on April 29.

In a time when our national politics is so divisive, the world's problems and its regional disputes seem so intractable, and the United States often scorned, Steinberg is a pleasant reminder that it can be a force for much good.

The future, he is convinced, is bright.

He talked about his first assignment at age 21 to the Central African Republic. His job was to oversee the investment of $2 million in aid.

When he talked to local officials, all men, "They said build an air-conditioned office building for the governor and the mayor and the police," recalled Steinberg. Instead U.S. relief officials listened to women in the marketplace and learned of rampant malaria, high instances of infant and maternal mortality during childbirth, and lack of access to health care.

"So we built health huts for little communities, we provided food and special nutritional support for lactating and pregnant women, we did weight monitoring for children, we provided drugs and medicine," he recalled. "Within two years we could already see a decline in stunting in children and a decline in infant mortality, and I was personally hooked on this."

Today the U.S. government provides about $30 billion in development assistance abroad, only 0.2 percent of GDP. But that money, tiny in terms of overall federal spending, is able to help form partnerships that make better use of the $1.2 trillion in private contributions for foreign aid that Americans provide through charities, faith groups, individual donations and corporate philanthropy.

Along with aid from other nations, it is making a difference.

In the last 15 years the incomes of 600 million people around the world moved above the extreme poverty line, defined as $1.25 per day by third-world measures. There has been a 40 percent decline in maternal and infant mortality. Due to the availability of antiretroviral drugs, sub-Sahara Africa has in the last decade seen a 61 percent drop in the death rate from AIDS-related illnesses.

President Obama used language suggested by USAID in his State of the Union Address. The president, called on the country to "join with our allies to eradicate extreme poverty in the next two decades by empowering women … helping communities feed and power and educate themselves, by saving the world's children from preventable deaths."

"It's achievable," Steinberg told the group of opinion writers.

Technology, he said, will lead to dramatic change. Young researchers are finding ways to get arsenic out of drinking water in Bangladesh, long a health problem there. Scientists at MIT are researching how to put lenses on cell phones to use them as medical diagnostic tools.

Soon, he predicted, consumers will be able to use cell phones to scan products barcodes and get a "socially responsible indicator," discouraging the purchase of products that used child or forced labor, or caused deforestation, for example, and providing incentives to corporations to do the right thing.

Steinberg may be a dreamer, but the world needs them. And, he said, self-interest alone should motivate efforts to lift nations out of poverty.

"Countries that are peaceful and prosperous do not tend to traffic in drugs, in people, or in weapons. They don't transmit pandemic diseases; they don't harbor pirates or terrorists. They don't send off huge numbers of refugees across borders or oceans, and they don't require American troops on the ground," he concluded.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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