AID Needs New Support Concerned about Local Conditions, the Sluggish Economy, and the Deficit, Americans Show Waning Enthusiasm for US Role in Foreign Assistance

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IN his April 21 Earth Day address, President Clinton wisely called for a strategic plan to increase United States environmental exports. But he failed to tie this proposal to the rest of the US foreign aid program, and thereby missed a great chance to rescue it from the doldrums. Altruism and national security, the principal justifications for US help to poor countries since World War II, no longer wash in Oshkosh.

With homeless crowding the streets, taxes rising, domestic public services on the decline, deficits persistent, and unemployment high, Americans want to keep their money at home. Regional conflicts, explosive population growth, and dismal third-world governance overseas further crimp our willingness to send dollars abroad.

Foreign aid is moribund, and the disarray within the Agency for International Development (AID) only compounds the unease. Long the flagship for US bilateral aid, it originally aimed at reducing poverty and achieving "economic development." But gradually, AID became entangled in extra responsibilities created by Congress.

These range from security assistance to friendly nations and balance-of-payments support for Egypt and Israel, to rental for US bases abroad. Disaster and famine relief also figure in AID's portfolio. So do HIV counseling, family planning services, and boosts for the US private sector. With such extra burdens, not to mention countless earmarks by legislators beholden to special interests, no wonder AID suffers from rudderless leadership and a poor self-image.

All this shows clearly on the bottom line. Back in the Marshall Plan era, we spent 2 to 3 percent of the gross national product (GNP) to rebuild Europe. In the 1970s a goal of 1 percent of GNP was set. We may think ourselves generous, but our aid spending has long ranked near the bottom of 18 rich-country donors belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 1991, for example, appropriations for all "foreign aid," including the congressional add-ons, sank to just 0.20 p ercent of our $6 trillion GNP. Only Ireland does less.

To reverse these trends, foreign aid needs a new rationale. Some progress is being made. After fierce bureaucratic tussles in AID's fragmented empire, the Clinton administration has proposed a new design for AID. As outlined by AID administrator-designate J. Brian Atwood in his Senate confirmation hearing last week, the rejuvenated program will echo earlier doctrine and break new ground.

As it did during the 1970s, AID will continue to emphasize "basic human needs" and democracy, aiming at better health, education, and family-planning services. It will also help poor nations achieve "sustainable development" through environmentally sound management of land and resources. …

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