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Oxfam Executive Outlines The Coming Need For International Aid


By one estimate, this pandemic could push half a billion people into poverty worldwide. That forecast comes from researchers at the United Nations.

We're going to talk now about what the international aid community can do to address that problem with Paul O'Brien. He's vice president of policy and advocacy for Oxfam, which just released its own set of recommendations for stemming the economic crisis unfolding around the world.

Good to have you here.

PAUL O'BRIEN: Good to be on.

SHAPIRO: Before we get to possible solutions, will you just explain the economic forces at play here? I mean, will you point to a country you're especially worried about and explain how the virus might drive people there into poverty?

O'BRIEN: Well, let's talk about three regions in particular - sub-Saharan Africa, Northern Africa and the Middle East. First, levels of poverty there, concentrations of humanity, fragility, lack of good governance - these things are combining, along with the policies that they're putting in place to fight the virus, to make us very worried as to what's going to happen to those populations. That's where we think this big number is going to show up worst.

SHAPIRO: Economically, is it similar to what we're seeing in the developed world, where industries just shut down and restaurants close their doors?

O'BRIEN: There are some similarities. Governments are putting in place restrictions on movement. But you're seeing net importers of food - they cannot access food in the way that we can here. You're seeing people in slum communities in places like Karachi or Mumbai, Cape Town, Nairobi, Mexico City - in those five cities alone, there's 5.7 million people in just five slums. And they don't - they can't do social distancing the way we do it here. Most of them - 4 out of 5 have no unemployment benefits at all. There are 2 billion people in the informal economy, which is a little different than we're facing in the north. They're not going to get sick days.

SHAPIRO: Right, so that obviously has enormous health consequences. But to focus just on the economic problem right now, finance ministers are meeting from G20 countries today virtually. Later this week, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund are gathering for spring meetings. What financial economic actions would you like to see them take right now?

O'BRIEN: We'd like to see them do three things. First, with respect to debts - what they've been talking about the last couple of days is debt moratoriums. That essentially means suspending debt, so the payments wouldn't happen this year, but they would accrue to next year. We want to see those payments - those debt payments cancelled so that they're not going further into debt. There are 45 countries who pay four times the amount in debt than they have in health care in terms of their national health budgets. Second, we need the IMF to put in place an international reserve. They call it special drawing rights. It's a kind of global currency. Countries can access it. Most of the G20 countries actually support this. The United States is currently blocking it. We'd like to see the United States go from a position of resistance to a position of leadership on that reserve. If Ethiopia can get access...

SHAPIRO: And what's the third item?

O'BRIEN: The third item...

SHAPIRO: And what's the third item you'd like to see?

O'BRIEN: The third item is aid. We need a scale of foreign assistance to these countries that we haven't seen in a very long time.

SHAPIRO: You know, given the experience that wealthy countries are going through right now in dealing with their own significant outbreaks and economic consequences, do you think highly developed countries have the political will to extend a hand to the developing world right now while they are dealing with crises they've never seen the scale of before?

O'BRIEN: Well, that takes leadership. You're going to have to see leaders understand that coronavirus anywhere is a threat everywhere. The IMF alone has seen an increase in the value of the goal (ph) that it has right now of $19 billion since the crisis started. The rich countries could say, why don't you just spend that money on letting countries not have to pay their debts right now so that they don't accrue to next year? That's the kind of leadership we're going to need.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, do you think this kind of aid will help the informal workers you talked about - the people who might sell something on the street but don't have a formal employer?

O'BRIEN: That's - absolutely. Organizations like Oxfam are working in 50 countries getting cash into the hands of people who have seen their informal employment dry up. You're going to need a lot of organizations and governments doing this.

SHAPIRO: Paul O'Brien is Oxfam's vice president for policy and advocacy.

Thank you for joining us today.

O'BRIEN: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.