Congress aid tactics may undo US third-world gains, economists warn

Recent US foreign police successes in the third world -- along with government and private aid dollars -- are being squandered. So say a number of foreign aid experts gathered here at the University of Illinois for the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA) meeting. The problem, they say, lies with Congress.

Congress mistakenly favors high-visibility "equity" aid projects that focus on "the poor majority" in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, according to university and government agricultural economists. These experts call instead for a shift in emphasis toward "effeiciency" or "productivity."

Such a shift would mean more US support for existing farmers and marketing systems in developing countries -- and less "welfare type" support for a country's poorest farmers. The argument is that the poorest people are helped most by increasing overall food productivity, which is increased most quickly by improving existing systems rather than starting from scratch.

Nonetheless, the equity approach is in line with the Carter administration's supports for women's rights, civil rights, and human rights, say many experts here. They agree equity should remain an important objective -- but one which is best served by giving priority to productivity.

With no votes being taken at this annual AAEA meeting, there is no telling if this "productivity argument" represents a majority view. But enough top experts are championing it here to have "equity" supporters worried -- both, they say, because the shift could alienate third worlders and because it could mean less support for those whom they see as "third worlders" in the US -- small family farmers.

Clifton R. Wharton Jr., a member of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger and chancellor of the State University of New York, said that in its March 1980 report, "the Hunger Commission concluded that we have in hand today the scientific and technical capability to end world hunger once and for all." But he warned that achieving this goal may depend on redirecting US aid programs.

Dr. Wharton quoted US Agency for International Development administrator Douglas J. Bennet's list of developments which have boosted US standing in third-world eyes:

"The US emphasis on human rights; the third-world reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; turning over the Panama Canal to Panama; being on the 'right side' in the Nicaraguan revolution; improved US relations with black majority countries in Africa; and our 30-year history of US assistance to the third world. . . ." Dr. Wharton said these developments have put the United States in a good position to strengthen its ties with the developing world.

Yet instead of cashing in on this opportunity, Dr. Wharton said, US interest and support has decreased.

Morris Whitaker, deputy executive director of the State Department's Board for International Food and Agricultural development, said the equity approach in foreign aid "has resulted in negative impacts on the very people aid programs are meant to help. There is less food available to them than they might otherwise have had if we had targeted different groups to give a higher rate of agricultural growth."

Dr. Whitaker pointed out that the countries which have benefited from "miracle" wheat and rice are those like India which have their own research institutions capable of adapting the new technologies to local conditions.

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