US Foreign Assistance Program Will Get New Focus in Overhaul

THE head of the Agency for International Development has launched the first step in a major overhaul of the United States's $6.6 billion foreign aid program in an effort to reinvigorate the widely criticized organization.

The major changes recently announced in the reorganization plan or expected in the ongoing reform would:

* Cut the number of countries receiving US assistance from 108 to 50.

* Cut a large number of the 55,000 AID contract workers.

* Concentrate expertise in a few regional bureaus.

* Have AID staff do more hands-on assistance work instead of spending most of their time writing contracts for others to do the projects.

Instead of working up programs for each country that has a lobby in Congress, AID hopes to focus on five major sectors: environment, population growth, economic development, building democracy, and human rights.

An AID official refused to release the list of over 50 countries to lose their AID programs because they are either too corrupt to use aid efficiently or too developed to need aid anymore. He said political considerations by the State Department could cause some countries to remain on the aid payroll.

But a congressional staff member involved in foreign aid said Zaire is the sort of corrupt and inefficient nation that will probably be cut off, while Thailand is an example of a ``graduating'' country that deserves US aid.

``This is the first step to rewrite the 1960 Foreign Assistance Act, which is covered with cold-war barnacles,'' says AID administrator J. Brian Atwood.

AID was created by President Kennedy to fight communism with democratic ideas and economic development. Now foreign aid has lost those ideological moorings.

What Mr. Atwood calls ``the new world disorder'' since the Berlin Wall fell makes foreign assistance vital to US interests in a new way, aid advocates say. Aid, they argue, can help deal with waves of illegal immigration, pollution, narcotics trafficking, and a host of other problems that respect no borders.

But with AID funding being held down, Atwood says his agency's budget has been largely driven by powerful congressional lobbies, Mideast treaty obligations, and the fight against narcotics. As a result, not a single country from the world's neediest region, sub-Saharan Africa, is among the top 10 recipients of AID assistance in 1993. The list includes: Israel, Egypt, Peru, Nicaragua, Turkey, El Salvador, India, Bolivia, Bangladesh, and the Philippines.

Atwood also faces big new consumers of aid in the Gaza Strip and West Bank and in the former East Bloc countries. As a result, Africa's aid has been fixed at $800 million by Congress and aid to Latin America and Asia is to be severely cut. This troubles some experts.

``De-emphasizing Latin America can do damage to our country - our future politically and economically is there,'' says Andrew Natsios, a top AID official under President Bush.

Mr. Natsios praises Atwood as ``one of the two greatest administrators of AID,'' but says his plan to cut field missions in half is misguided. ``That's its strength - the standards and project designs by our field staff are the best of the Western donors such as Canada, Japan, Australia, and France,'' he says.

AID spokesman Jay Byrne replies: ``We understand our strength is in the field,'' and ``we hope to free up'' the remaining foreign missions by cutting back on paperwork so they can do design and implementation.

Several other provisions of the Atwood reorganization plan are also controversial.

Atwood proposes to create a new Bureau for Food, Disaster Assistance, and Crisis Management. This outfit would speed aid to countries such as Ethiopia when they go from dictatorship to democracy, but this initiative would drain aid from other regions.

Atwood also wants to set up a Global Programs, Field Support, and Research Bureau in Washington. While it would end duplication of expertise in the many AID missions abroad, it would also separate the field staff from its research materials.

Atwood plans a cross-country tour to try to sell the innovations to newspaper editors and officials who run private voluntary organizations that work with AID. But the AID director already has earned high praise in some quarters.

Atwood is providing the kind of leadership to AID that the agency ``has not had for five years,'' says one congressional staff member.

The new standards Atwood is introducing to evaluate foreign-aid awards, the staff member adds, is something ``the House Foreign Affairs Committee wanted for four years.''

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