For a Congress aiming at budget reductions, foreign aid was an obvious target. It was thus no surprise when Congress agreed recently to big cuts in foreign aid, accelerating a decade-long trend.
What has surprised many diplomatic observers is the extent to which the 104th Congress, convinced that foreign aid has been a waste of taxpayers' money, has turned its back on one of the guiding premises of postwar American foreign policy.
Since the 1950s, aid to alleviate poverty and hunger has been viewed as a means of enhancing economic growth and political stability in nations important to US interests.
Billions of dollars later, many lawmakers are not convinced that the investment has paid off.
"What we're seeing is not just a continuation of a downward trend in the amount of development assistance but a change in attitude on the part of Congress," says Peter Shiras, director of government relations at InterAction, a Washington-based consortium of 160 US nonprofit humanitarian organizations. "It no longer recognizes the positive contribution foreign aid makes abroad and how it serves US national interests."
The foreign-aid bill, approved by the House Oct. 31 and the Senate on Nov. 1, appropriates $12.1 billion for the current fiscal year, some $2.7 billion less than the amount President Clinton requested.
Final passage of the legislation has been held up by a dispute over an amendment to bar US funds to organizations abroad that perform abortions.
If the issue is not resolved, Congress is expected to pass a long-term continuing resolution at the $12.1 billion level approved in a House-Senate conference committee.
Middle East winners
The big winners, this year as before, are Israel and Egypt, which receive $3 billion and $2 billion respectively - more than 40 percent of the US foreign-aid budget as a continuing reward for signing the 1977 Camp David peace treaty.
The biggest losers are less developed countries.
General aid for education, health care, family-planning assistance, and environmental programs in poor nations was cut by one-third. Funds to alleviate poverty in Africa - home to half the world's poor - are likely to be cut at least 20 percent.
Meanwhile, last year's $1.2 billion US contribution to the World Bank affiliate that provides low-interest loans to poor nations was cut by 42 percent.
In all, at least half the $2.7 billion reduction in foreign aid from last year will be sustained by programs devoted to development assistance.
The cut perpetuates a gradual trend. Development assistance as a percentage of the American gross domestic product has dropped from 1 percent to less than half a percent since the 1960s. The US share of total worldwide bilateral development assistance has dropped from 63 to 17 percent since the mid-1950s. As a percentage of total US foreign aid, meanwhile, development assistance drops this year from 30 to 22 percent.
At the same time, however, substantial amounts are donated by private citizens to support …