A quarter century of giving

BY almost any measure, the Agency for International Development has come a long way in its quarter century in the aid business. In the post-Marshall Plan days of the early 1950s, when American aid efforts were scattered among various agencies, the United States was the only nation in the world offering economic assistance as a national policy. Since then, most other industrial nations have followed suit. And since the formal consolidation of US aid efforts into one agency in late 1961, all signs are that the $140 billion given has made a significant difference.

Help varies from the building of market-access roads in Guatemala and the rehabilitation of irrigation canals in Sri Lanka to research aid for such ventures as developing heat-resistant tomatoes that can be grown in the tropics. In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, where the famine a decade or more ago was worse than that of the '80s in Africa, a ``green revolution'' in seed technology has increased self-reliance in food production. A new variety of sorghum, an African staple, has increased yields in such countries as the Sudan by as much as 150 percent. AID Director Peter McPherson, who approaches his job with a zest that may well have its roots in his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, predicts that Africa will experience a ``green revolution'' of its own in the next decade or two.

In the '80s, the US Agency for International Development, like other nations and institutions in the development business, has shifted its strategy from direct food and other aid that often failed to trickle down to those most in need.

The emphasis now is on a more comprehensive assistance strategy aimed at long-term development. Now seen as key are structural economic changes such as the raising of producer prices, often kept artificially low for political reasons, to spur farmers to grow more. So far 16 African countries have increased food prices to stimulate production.

Other changes deemed desirable include less government interference with free-market forces and a stronger emphasis on exports. Such countries as South Korea, Taiwan, and Brazil which have focused on exports are now middle-income countries getting little foreign assistance. In Bangladesh, AID has helped transfer the job of marketing fertilizer from the government to the private sector; 45,000 local businesses are involved. Similarly, AID contraceptives and health aids are being distributed in other countries at the retail level.

The United States cannot order such economic changes; what it can do to help spur them is to offer such transition assistance as food, job training, and management advice.

AID can properly claim a significant role in the marked increase in life expectancy, primary school enrollment, literacy, and per capita income in developing countries over the last 25 years.

Still, the Capitol Hill constituency for foreign aid remains slim and ever skeptical. The lobby for most third-world recipients is nonexistent. Many members of Congress continue to view foreign aid as a luxury that the US with its increasing deficit can ill afford. The amount of help Washington has given has dropped sharply over the last two years - from $23 billion to just over $14 billion for fiscal 1987, $2 billion less than President Reagan's request.

Roughly one-fourth of the total goes to Israel, a fact that makes the package as a whole more palatable to many on the Hill. But under the current administration an increasing share of the aid, about one-third, goes for military assistance. Also, a growing share of the total aid package is channeled to nations the US considers strategically important. Latin American and African nations are getting a smaller share of the pie. US legislators, concerned that foreign aid could have adverse effects on the US economy and jobs, have been adding new strictures to the program each year.

Certainly US legislators should keep a close watch on foreign aid spending; but they should also recognize a bargain when they see one. At its heart the aid concept is one of brother helping brother. Giving is rarely a one-way street. The economic and political returns in this case are significant and measurable. The increased political stability observable among recipient nations bodes well for the free world. The US also gets a 70 percent return in purchased US goods and equipment on every dollar invested. Some 40 percent of all US exports now go to developing countries.

As Secretary of State George Shultz put it the other day at a birthday party for AID: ``There can be no enduring economic prosperity for the US without sustained economic growth in the third world.''

Congratulations, AID; keep up the good work. 30-{et

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