NEW YORK -- USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios yesterday vigorously defended U.S. development assistance to poor countries, telling an international forum that Washington is already the most generous of nations.
Mr. Natsios also said the United States has no intention of meeting global standards for official development assistance (ODA), currently 0.7 percent of gross domestic product and one measure by which Washington falls far short of other major donors.
"We do not believe that there are any magic numbers for achieving our mutual goals," he told government ministers and diplomats at a two-day U.N. conference on financing for development.
"There is ample evidence that ODA is not generally the limiting factor on nations' development," Mr. Natsios added. "Development progress is first and foremost a function of country commitment and political will to rule justly, promote economic freedom and invest in people."
Earlier in the day, Mr. Natsios told reporters that "no matter what we do, we will never reach 0.7 percent," a figure that could exceed $90 billion annually.
"We couldn't spend $91 billion if we wanted to," he said, adding that the U.S. government had never agreed to the 0.7 percent target, and wasn't bound by it.
Washington has nearly doubled its ODA in the last five years, the chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development said, spending $19.5 billion in 2004, up from $10 billion in 2000.
However, U.S. aid totals just 0.16 percent of GDP -- a far smaller share, proportionally, than most Western European governments spend.
Just last month, European Union members committed to reaching the 0.7 percent figure by 2015, and half that by 2010.
The disparity has generated a steady stream of criticism from European nations and development officials, who say the United States should both give more freely and commit to sustained assistance levels.
"I appeal to those industrialized countries that have not yet adopted such a step-by-step plan and timetable to follow the example of the European Union," German Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul said yesterday.
Three years ago, President Bush and other world leaders gathered in Monterrey, Mexico, pledging to help the world's poorest, including the 2 billion people who survive on less than a dollar a day.
That conference produced a compact: Industrialized countries promised debt relief, access to markets and increased assistance, while developing countries agreed to improve the climate for local business and make their countries more attractive to foreign donors and investors.
Development assistance has gained a new urgency, topping the agenda at international forums and attracting public attention in the wake of devastating natural disasters, the AIDS crisis and continuing political instability.
The British government has made aid to Africa the theme of the upcoming G-8 summit, and has recently convinced the leaders of the world's eight leading industrial democracies to forgive much of Africa's foreign debt.
Sustained development assistance for the world's most desperately poor people is one of the four planks of the September summit at the United Nations.
"Until very recently, the poor and vulnerable have had to settle for too many small steps ... when what they hoped for were bold and meaningful advances," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday. "Today, we can and must do better."
The millennium development goals (MDGs) were developed by the United Nations five years ago to target the most crushing manifestations of poverty: illiteracy, hunger, and lack of access to sanitation, potable water and communications.
Mr. Natsios said yesterday that the MDGs will likely remain unrealized, citing African leadership as one of the reasons.
"I have to say, I'm not sure, even with all these aid increases, we're going to meet the millennium challenge goals," Mr. Natsios said here yesterday morning.