Paul O'Neill's Last challenge.(EDITORIALS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Paul O'Neill's Last challenge.(EDITORIALS)


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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