U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday that programs to help the world's poor should be treated as national security priorities as economic turmoil leaves millions struggling to find work and food.
Her message to thousands of government and private aid officials at the world's premier development forum is part of a push to keep aid flowing to the people who need it most.
It is a tough sell as rich donor nations dealing with financial crises and tight budgets face questions from taxpayers and lawmakers wondering whether aid money should be spent on citizens suffering at home, not in faraway countries.
Aid groups at the Busan High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, meanwhile, are demanding more and better-directed aid for people living in crushing poverty. Rich donors, they say, should be redoubling their efforts to help the poor instead of scaling down aid.
Clinton, the first American secretary of state to participate in such an aid conference, said in a speech that development is as important as diplomacy and defense in creating a more peaceful world.
"Countries with growing economies are less likely to send refugees streaming across their borders or traffic in arms, drugs or people," Clinton said.
The United States came in for criticism from groups that say Washington has a special responsibility because its aid policies are often the model for other donors.
"Aid from the U.S. goes primarily to countries that serve its geopolitical interests, rather than the countries most in need of assistance," Antonio Tujan Jr., international director of IBON, a private advocacy group, said in a statement.
Critics also criticized the strings often attached to U.S. aid that require American companies to implement U.S. aid programs.
Clinton said the United States is working to remove many of the requirements tying aid to U.S. companies. Doing this, she said, "frees local leaders to choose from a wider range of partners, and it maximizes impact by increasing competition and driving down costs."
But such links, she said, can also build domestic political support. "So while we cannot commit to untying all American assistance, we are working to untie as much as possible," Clinton said.
The Busan forum is the fourth of its kind since 2003. Delegates are also considering the emergence in recent years of growing powers like China and Brazil as aid providers. These newer donors are being pressed to make sure their aid is linked to protection of the rule of law and good governance.
The forum, which was last held in 2008, is also taking up the so-called Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000 to cut extreme poverty in half by 2015. Progress has been slow.
With the target date for the goals less than four years away, "the urgency of achieving strong, shared and sustainable growth and decent work in developing countries is paramount," according to a draft of the forum's final document. "The world stands at a critical juncture in global development."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged donors to keep aid programs strong, despite the stress they are feeling from the global economic crisis and budgetary constraints. By resisting pressure to cut development aid, he said, donors can help countries struggling with war, AIDS and poverty.
"Do not let this economic crisis, do not let short-term austerity, deflect you from your long-term commitment to the world's poorest people," Ban said in a speech.