Reform Foreign Aid

FOREIGN aid represents the closest approximation to the United States' putting its money where its foreign-policy mouth is.

Which is one reason why we find President Clinton's foreign-aid reform proposals attractive - at least in broad outline. The plan, according to the US Agency for International Development, would reorganize aid around five themes: the global environment, population control, economic development, humanitarian aid, and democratic reforms.

Many of these deal with the root causes of instabilities that the superpowers tried to manipulate to their advantage during the cold war. Yet for too long, foreign aid was held captive to the need to counter Soviet influence, actual or perceived. Humanitarian principles often got lip service, while money went to repressive, corrupt - albeit anticommunist - regimes.

This may have helped contribute to public skepticism about US foreign-aid, which outweighs the aid's impact on the federal budget. Washington will spend $27.7 billion this year on aid, only 2 percent of federal outlays.

Even that amount can be better spent. An administration study team noted in a recent report that foreign-aid programs often waste money, lack coherence, and fail to coincide with the administration's objectives.

Nor are these complaints limited to this adminstration. Under President Bush, Secretary of State James Baker III often sought from Congress more flexibility for allocating aid than he got.

One key issue is Congress's role. The study team noted that aid often can go to a country based on its lobbying strength in Congress, regardless of administration priorities. Although the detail of the administration's plan will be released later this week, the White House is said to have rejected a plan to ask Congress to vote on money based on goals rather than by individual country.

Still, the sentiment for reform runs high among some lawmakers. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont has said that the current foreign aid bill is the last one he will support without significant reforms.

Spending taxpayers' money abroad is a tough sell, especially when the economy is staggering along and Washington's attention is focused on reducing the federal budget deficit. Reforms that encourage consistency between rhetoric and reality and that improve efficiency of delivery could help calm foreign aid's skeptics.

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