After Bush push on foreign aid: getting results

It took a Republican president, Richard Nixon, to recognize Red China. Any Democrat making the same move would likely have been charged by some with being soft on communism.

It took another Republican president, George W. Bush, to reverse the years-long slide in American foreign aid.

President Bush has proposed increasing foreign aid by $10 billion between 2004 and 2006. This will require several years of congressional assent.

But the chances of getting it through now appear good.

"The likelihood of getting consensus around this is higher than if it [had been] proposed by a Democratic president," reckons Isaac Shapiro, an economist at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Washington's foreign-aid community never regarded President Clinton as a strong advocate of boosting resources for "the battle against world poverty." That's the phrase used by Mr. Bush in his March 22 speech at the United Nations gathering of 171 nations in Monterrey, Mexico.

Any Clinton plan to raise the $11.5 billion foreign-aid budget, however, would likely have been blocked by Republicans in Congress as a waste of money.

The mood has changed. The protests against globalization at several key international gatherings have raised US public awareness of the grim poverty in too many nations.

So has the Sept. 11 disaster. It created "a teachable moment," aid advocates say.

Poverty does not automatically create a terrorist. But as Bush put it in Monterrey: "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror."

Pressures for more aid were starting to build in Congress from Republicans as well as Democrats. Various resolutions in the Senate last fall and this winter got altogether 41 signatures. A quick effort in the House collected 62 signatures.

The "entire landscape" has changed, notes one expert.

Nonetheless, the Bush proposal was a complete surprise, even to high officials in the Treasury and the Agency for International Development.

InterAction, an alliance of 160 US-based international and humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, had geared up for a five-year campaign to change public thinking on aid. The Bush proposal changes the focus of this campaign.

John Sewell, a veteran expert on development, had just finished an opinion-page article suggesting something like the current proposal by Bush. He had written it as a fake, bootlegged internal memo to the president. That day, Bush came out with his plan, and the op-ed piece had to be scrapped.

Nonetheless, Mr. Sewell applauds the "180-degree turnaround" in the administration's attitude and rhetoric on foreign aid. He had headed the Overseas Development Council, a Washington think tank that a year or so ago lost its funding because of the noninterest in development economics and aid.

A replacement, the Center for Global Development (CGD), was financed by a Silicon Valley millionaire, Edward Scott. It began its program last November.

One associate, David Weiner, together with Mr. Shapiro, put the size of the Bush proposal in context. Even if fully implemented in 2006, the $16 billion in foreign aid will amount to 0.135 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, its total output of goods and services. That's up from 0.108 percent this year. As a share of total budget outlays, foreign aid will rise from 0.55 to 0.73 percent.

So the US will continue to contribute a far smaller portion of its economy to aid than nearly every other rich donor country. And the share of the US budget will still be lower than in almost any year from the end of World War II through the mid-1990s.

On the other hand, the US spends far more on defense – and so, on world order – than any other rich country.

Shapiro and Mr. Weiner welcome the Bush proposal as having "the potential to enhance substantially the reach and the effectiveness" of US development aid. It could pressure other industrial nations to boost aid.

Another CGD scholar, William Easterly, sees the Bush plan as especially useful in its emphasis on getting more development bang for each aid buck.

"For decades, the success of development aid was measured only in the resources spent, not the results achieved," Bush said. "We must tie greater aid to political and legal and economic reforms."

Mr. Easterly, until last fall an economist at the World Bank, wrote a book with that theme. It resulted in the bank's "encouraging" him to leave.

It's not a new theme. Even President John F. Kennedy called for more selectivity in which nations receive US aid. Every successive World Bank president, when taking office, has promised to make aid more effective.

With that in mind, foreign-aid experts will be watching closely to see how Bush assures that US dollars go to "those nations that govern justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom." It won't be easy.

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