11/30/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Can't Be Cut

There is a deep dread emerging in the development community that commitments to reducing poverty, improving global health, and increasing prosperity may be hanging in the balance in the coming year. The keen irony? The combination of prolific government spending and financial catastrophe may prevent us from helping the world's poorest at a time when we can truly influence their lives for the better.

This would be a tragedy of unprecedented proportions since we have finally arrived in an age where fighting poverty isn't just chic, it also makes perfect fiscal sense. This type of development is now widely-accepted policy, and this is in no small part because of the heroic efforts of the ONE campaign. They went out with a simple message this past year to candidates: partisanship has no place in decisions that can benefit the poor world-wide. Benefiting the poor benefits each of us: with direct, positive impacts on U.S. security, economics, and the environment. It's critical that we push foreign aid and development programs forward. The ONE campaigners did an extraordinary job of getting this objective on candidates' agendas. Now it's time to make sure they are prepared to follow through. Here's where the two candidates currently stand:

Senator John McCain:

Senator McCain is committed to the goal of eradicating malaria and has also voiced his support for eradication of a range of diseases and disorders, not the least of which is obstetric fistula. That's impressive maternal health language to come from his lips. He co-sponsored the reauthorization of PEPFAR, a bill that would spend $48 billion over five years to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Senator McCain has spoken the language of prosperity creation very clearly: he has said he would pursue policies that enable entrepreneurs and exporters to increase access to international markets. That's how new markets for American products are born and charity cases become productive global citizens. He has frequently made positive statements regarding the elimination of agricultural subsidies that keep the poor poor and emphasized the need to focus on women.

Sadly, language isn't enough. Against the backdrop of the financial crisis, the McCain camp has suggested all spending could be frozen but for defense and veteran's programs. That would be a serious misstep and suggests that his lofty language may not translate into real, on-the-ground initiatives.

Senator Barack Obama:

Senator Obama has committed to doubling the U.S. foreign assistance commitment to $50 billion by the year 2012, and expanding the U.S. effort into new regions while increasing support for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. Further, he has committed to the Education for All bill which would provide $10 billion in funding over five years.

Senator Obama has made commitments to new health care infrastructure initiatives. With Senator McCain, he signed on as a co-sponsor of PEPFAR reauthorization.

If elected, Senator Obama has also vowed to look at creating a cabinet-level position for development assistance. That's a refreshing change and a forward-looking idea. This would enable him to act on a number of key development areas that he has promoted, including debt cancellation for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) and reforms at the World Bank to ensure that poor countries receive grants rather than loans. Further, Senator Obama has committed to do something that should have been tackled long ago: the consolidation of PEPFAR, the federal Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and other foreign assistance programs into a streamlined U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Senator Obama has gone far with his international commitments, including critical funding for small businesses in developing countries, infrastructure for global health, increase in malarial spending, expansion of agricultural initiatives, and potentially the increase in US funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria.

So all news is good news from the Obama camp, right? With Wall Street wailing, the tone has shifted decidedly. Senators Obama and Biden have said that they may have to delay the goal of doubling foreign assistance. That means a delay in saving mothers' and children's lives in countries where we need allies and markets. That means pushing the day when dozens of countries can emerge from gross poverty farther into the future.

It's time to send a clear signal to the Obama and McCain camps that these issues are not disposable because of market downturns. In fact, they are perhaps more pertinent and compelling than before. We cannot achieve financial growth and global security without investing in it. If we fail to do so, we undo the good that's been done, and the 'undeveloping' world will drag economies, health and stability down. If we don't invest now, we will pay far more later in lost markets, and, more importantly, in lost lives.