WASHINGTON — AS television images of the hungry, the sick, and the displaced of the former Soviet Union seep into the American consciousness, a groundswell of support is building for private humanitarian aid to that disparate collection of republics.
The Russian Embassy here reports an increasing volume of phone calls and letters from Americans asking what they can do to help. News organizations have also begun to field questions from viewers and readers on where to send checks.
A growing number of private voluntary organizations, such as the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, are setting up long-term operations in the former USSR. Many other organizations - such as CARE, whose focus long has been the developing world - are sending "needs assessment" teams to determine if they should expand into that part of the world.
For weeks, airlifts of private and public American aid have already been going to various points in the ex-USSR. But following the freeing of most prices in much of the former Soviet Union - an event that prompted extensive news coverage - the message has been brought home to many Americans.
"The American people in general have not been aware of the extent of need in the former Soviet Union," says William Walsh Jr., president of Project Hope, a medical aid organization appointed by the US government to carry out its medical program in the ex-USSR. "A lot of people believed that their health care was as advanced as their space program. In fact, they are 30 years behind in their technical capabilities."
In addition, availability of medicines and pharmaceutical supplies has declined dramatically in recent months, dropping in some areas to only 20 percent of what is needed. For now, the medical shortage is greater than the food shortfall, say private and US officials.
Still, after a recent visit to several former Soviet republics, Secretary of State James Baker III stated in a press conference that the overall situation was worse than he had anticipated. He indicated that more supplies would need to be pledged.
Coordination of aid is the focus of a US-sponsored international conference on aid to the ex-USSR, to be held here the week of Jan. 20. But some US officials expect an effort to drum up more supplies. A separate conference of nongovernmental organizations will be held here at the same time. "The idea is to generate interest among the PVO [private voluntary organization] community," says Mr. Walsh.
Washington officials say they expect the US Agency for International Development (AID), which thus far has been involved only in medical deliveries through Project Hope, to also begin sending food aid. AID recently notified Congress that it has "de-obligated" $5 million from Pakistan, which is barred from receiving aid until President Bush certifies that it is not building nuclear weapons, and pledged it for Soviet programs. The money would go toward democracy and economic initiatives, as well as project s on energy efficiency and market reform, says AID spokesman John Riddle.
So far, AID does not have a representative based in Moscow, but is expected to get one.
To many Russians, the sight of airlifts and the arrival of foreign PVO officials is the latest manifestation of the growing "third-world-ization" of their country. "Burkina Faso with nuclear weapons," a newspaper headline once ruefully named the USSR. "We will catch up to and surpass Africa," read an oft-sighted banner at anticommunist rallies.
Development experts caution against drawing the analogy too far. The ex-Soviet Union has a high literacy rate, a population with good technical training, and a road system more developed than in a third-world country. It also knows how to produce industrial goods. What it lacks is a market economy.
But at the Russian Embassy here, officials are worried about a phenomenon that is common in the developing world: the shattering of faith in democracy when the reform programs of democratically elected leaders result in further hardship.
"I am afraid people will think democracy equals cold, hunger, and deprivation," says a ranking embassy official.
In an interview, Viktor Komplektov, who was Soviet ambassador to the US until the dissolution of the Soviet Union Dec. 25, expressed concern of a different sort: that Americans feel confident the aid they contribute reaches its intended recipients and is not sold by a bureaucrat or funneled into the black market.
Given America's economic troubles, he says, "it is especially vital for the American people to know that what they are doing for Russia [and] for other states of the former Soviet Union has not been wasted." Organizations accepting donations for the former USSR
American Red Cross
PO Box 37243
Washington, D.C. 20013
161 Cherry St.
New Canaan, CT 06840
Baptist World Aid
6733 Curran Street
McLean, VA 22101
Millwood, VA 22646