- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 15, 2002

Given a lifelong propensity for bluntness, Paul O'Neill probably never was destined to end his illustrious career with a four- or eight-year stint as U.S. Treasury secretary. Among other things, his job description required him to gain the confidence of the mavens of Wall Street, people for whom he had expressed some disdain. Indeed, he mocked stock, bond and currency traders as "people who sit in front of flickering green screens," whose jobs he said he could learn "in about a couple of weeks."
So, it was hardly surprising that Mr. O'Neill's tenure at Treasury was short-lived. After his abrupt departure was announced Dec. 6, Mr. O'Neill issued a brief statement declaring that he would return to Pittsburgh, where he would devote himself to education and health issues.
Now, that surely is one admirable option for the 67-year-old former chairman and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Alcoa. There's no doubt that the hard-headed, big-hearted, blunt-talker would do very well pursuing that mission. But Paul O'Neill is destined for much greater things. To borrow from one of his own more noteworthy phrases, he needs to look at the "cosmic" picture.
In May, Mr. O'Neill traveled with rock star Bono to four African nations Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia on a tour investigating development needs and accomplishments. Before his trip, Mr. O'Neill had earned an undeserved reputation for hard-heartedness by repeatedly making an accurate, though much-criticized, assessment of foreign aid. In the postwar period, Mr. O'Neill persuasively argued, developed nations "have precious little to show" for the hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars they have spent on aid programs for the developing world.
Throughout his African tour with Bono, as chronicled by Paul Blustein of The Washington Post, Mr. O'Neill displayed what can only be described as an utter obsession with the pervasive inability of foreign aid to provide clean water. Mr. O'Neill's concern was well-placed. Throughout the developing world each year, waterborne diseases kill an estimated 1.5 million people, most of whom are children under the age of 5.
Mr. O'Neill first became appalled at Africa's water condition when he visited a northern Ghanaian village of 4,000, whose hospital encountered huge difficulties obtaining clean water. The village's water, he charged, "looks like rinse water from a washing machine."
"There has been a trillion dollars spent over the last 50 years," Mr. O'Neill observed. "At least for me, I have to say, I don't understand why one of life's most important conditions, namely clean water, hasn't been solved." In Ethiopia, he charged, "It's unforgivable that, for as long as we've known that clean water is essential to a decent life, we still have in Ethiopia something like 40 million people who don't have clean water."
In Uganda, Mr. O'Neill was rightly appalled to learn that for most of the year, schoolchildren had to spend large parts of their day traveling eight miles round-trip to obtain water. In a village outside Uganda's capital of Kampala, Mr. O'Neill encountered many local people who, incomprehensibly in the 21st century, believed that a snake controlled their water supply. Disturb the water supply, the villagers believed, and a snake will either bite them or divert their water.
Nearly half of Uganda's 24 million people do not have access to clean water. Yet, in back-of-the-envelope calculations made one evening, Mr. O'Neill and Uganda's central bank governor concluded, based on an estimate that a typical well would cost $2,000 to drill, that all Ugandans could have access to clean water for an aggregate investment of $25 million. "Last year the World Bank lent $300 million to Uganda," Mr. Blustein reported Mr. O'Neill telling a university audience the next day. "What was so important that there wasn't $25 million to $30 million to give everyone in Uganda clean water? Where did the money go?" the blunt-talking secretary demanded.
Not surprisingly, Mr. O'Neill was labeled naive by the development experts. A spokesman for Save the Children explained that "there are no spare parts and the wells fall apart." The World Bank's country program manager for Uganda confirmed that wells and pumps frequently fell into disrepair. Well, so what? "It's more than just having the physical infrastructure; you also need to have systems in place to make sure it's maintained," the World Bank official explained to Mr. Blustein. "That's complicated." How complicated could it be? Acknowledging that it's not "rocket science," he explained that a village would have to establish committees of local people who would be responsible for well maintenance. And there would have to be supervisory personnel to inspect the wells and monitor the committees. With excuses like these, no wonder Mr. O'Neill, who by all accounts superbly ran Alcoa's far-flung worldwide operations, was so appalled.
And no wonder he refused to accept the lame excuses. Moreover, he even considered as defeatist the U.N. goal of reducing global poverty by 50 percent by 2015. "That's my aggravation, frankly, with the developing community. It's always got tomorrow," he told representatives from non-government organizations. "For people alive today, their tomorrows are going down every … day. How many millions of children are you going to lose between the ages of zero and 5 between now and 2015 because we don't do water?"
It is impossible to conceive of a greater, more worthwhile challenge for Mr. O'Neill to pursue than solving the developing world's clean-water problems. Surely, the Bush administration, if it were so inclined, could use its weight to place the deserving, highly qualified Mr. O'Neill in a position to pursue that goal. After his experience in Africa, it is difficult to imagine Mr. O'Neill turning down an opportunity that would allow him to apply his considerable problem-solving skills to what is arguably the greatest tragedy of the new millennium.

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