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I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between two recent news stories. On the one hand, the U.S. Congress seems poised to spend up to $700 billion on a bailout plan to rescue American banks (and their investors) from major losses incurred by major greed, major misjudgment, and a major lack of governmental oversight.

It’s hard to comprehend what $700 billion would look like, except that it would look very big — especially when compared to the money being spent to assist the world’s poorest and most underprivileged people.

A day-long event held Sept. 25 at the United Nations raised pledges of $16 billion toward funding the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, designed to eliminate poverty and its negative impact on billions of lives by 2015.

Major commitments were announced Thursday in four key areas, according to the report: $3 billion for a program to control malaria and save more than 4.2 million lives between 2008 and 2015, $4.5 billion dollars in new pledges to get 24 million children into school by 2010, $2 billion next year (rising to $7 billion by 2015) to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health, and $1.6 billion to boost food security by helping poor farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and central America gain access to profitable markets.

The $16 billion raised won’t do the whole job, but it can make a huge difference and save millions of people from misery and death. The entire project could be accomplished for a fraction of the $700 billion Americans are getting ready to spend.

The big number will keep the world’s richest nation a bit more comfortable.

The small number could keep the world’s poorest people alive.

But we know where our priorities are.

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