WASHINGTON — NOW that the cold war has ended, President Clinton's new director of the $6.8 billion-a-year Agency for International Development - J. Brian Atwood - says he hopes to redirect America's third-world aid toward new targets: human rights, democracy, and what experts call "sustainable development" - a catch phrase that includes environmental protection and empowerment of the poor in the third world.
The AID budget debate on the floor of the House began Tuesday and continued yesterday with Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, calling the "leaner" foreign aid program a tool that is "cheaper" than the military in securing peace in the world.
This year, in a significant change in policy, AID's budget bill does not list the amount each nation will receive. A congressional aide said it was an attempt to stop "micromanagement" - the traditional congressional "earmarking," in which politically endowed countries get extra funding due to pressure by the State Department or key congressmen, regardless of their real needs or AID's desires.
For example, in 1993 the top 10 nations to receive AID funds did not include a single country in Africa, the poorest place on earth. Instead, the most money went to America's friends: Israel, Egypt, Peru, Nicaragua, Turkey, El Salvador, India, Bolivia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.
And despite a promise to reform things, Mr. Atwood, in his first interview since his confirmation by the United States Senate, admitted that the lion's share of the AID budget - nearly one-third - will continue to go to Israel and Egypt - "not exactly a development decision" but one that "grew out of a commitment at Camp David" when President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Indeed, according to Andrew Natsios, former AID assistant administrator under Presidents Reagan and Bush, congressional earmarking as well as State Department priorities mean that "there is practically no money left in the AID budget that is discretionary."
Despite the effort to bar congressional micromanagement, the Foreign Affairs Committee's $9.678 billion authorization for foreign assistance, including AID's $6.8 billion, specifies that Israel will get $3 billion in economic and military aid; Egypt will get $2.15 billion; Russia and other former Soviet-bloc states will get $903 million; and Africa's aid will be raised from the $800 million requested by the administration to $900 million.
Mr. Atwood said he hopes to cut the number of countries getting aid from 108 to about 50. The list of those to be cut has not yet been delivered to Congress, according to a congressional staff aide. Atwood declined to identify them. He did say the selection process will be based on the new administration's criteria: "What is the [recipient] government doing to contribute to development? Are there good partners to work with? Will there be transparency, pluralism, accountability, democracy?"
Mr. Atwood said that he believed "sustainability" also includes "participatory, people-first programs." They would be sustainable on the grounds that they would continue even after assistance ends.
He admits to a sad and disturbing feeling that he will be fighting a losing battle against overpopulation and poverty. He returned recently to Abidjan in Cote D'Ivoire, 25 years after he served there as a junior foreign service officer. The impact of crowding and poverty was striking: "Everything is overtaxed - the ecosystems. Our aim is to stabilize population growth by 2025."
But money for birth control is not the only way to limit population. When people earn more and fewer children die, parents have fewer children. "It also depends on how women are treated," said Atwood. "If that means intervening in other cultures, we need to do it."
He said he has seen the cloistering of women in Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, where they are not allowed out of their compounds, and "in my opinion, it is a violation of human rights that we will bring up at the Human Rights conference in Vienna," now under way.
Aid programs are often criticized because while they may teach farmers how to increase production, the elites in power may decide to reduce the prices farmers receive for crops or raise the costs of fertilizers. Atwood said that "we need to influence a government's economic policies and encourage redistribution of wealth, not just by taxes but by encouraging small farmers and businesses. I'm an optimist."
He said pessimistic reports predicted "some countries would fall off the face of the earth. But take a country like Haiti and even landlocked places like Niger. They both have resources - human beings. In the third world, people are in more daily contact with other human beings than we are. It has forced them to live peaceful lives."
Mr. Natsios, who directed AID's Food and Humanitarian Assistance programs and now is vice-president of World Vision, said that the No. 1 problem at AID was congressional interference and too many missions.
The limitations attached in committee to the foreign aid bill include: restrictions that can be waived by the president on countries that aid Cuba or ship destabilizing conventional weapons to Iran; a block on aid to Zaire and Sudan unless there are "new governments moving toward respect for democracy and human rights"; a bar to aid that would result in a loss of US jobs; and requirement of notification on progress toward democracy for aid to Guatemala and Peru, where there have been coups.