Disaster relief survives ax, but foreign aid outlook dims

Prospects for US emergency aid to areas like Cambodia and Nicaragua have dramatically improved in recent days. But at the same time the outlook for long-term financing of aid to other needy nations has plummeted:

* In a dramatic turnaround March 31, increased funding included in the 1980 foreign aid bill for disaster spots narrowly escaped the ax of congressional budget cutters.

* But on April 1 the Carter administration announced plans to cut $94 million in projected outlays from his $7.4 billion 1981 foreign aid package. The trims involved US funding of international banks and development organizations, debt forgiveness for least-developed countries, refugee assistance, and bilateral aid programs.

The improved prospects for this year's emergency aid funding could greatly assist planners trying to meet swelling world needs among refugees and the hungry.

But cuts in longer-term aid, which congressional staffers expect to be made deeper in the House and Senate this spring, leave some independent world hunger analysts worried that future US foreign aid will be severely weakened.

"In the broader world context, critical human needs among the chronically hungry and refugees are on the rise," says Larry Minear of Church World Service/Lutheran World Relief. "While fiscal restraint is in order, the budgetary process is not working to provide for prompt food aid at times of unexpected worldwide need or regular US contributions to the indispensable development work of international organizations."

For weeks Congress, determined to keep the lid on new spending, has blocked increased funding for new disaster spots. Key emergency-aid provisions of the 1980 foreign aid bill were stalled. These include $30 million to cover (already spent) aid for Cambodia, a $196 million boost for the Food for Peace program needed partly for refugees, and $75 million for reconstruction in war-torn Nicaragua.

The House Budget Committee resolved last week to make room for the full Congress to approve most of these aid increases. But the Senate Budget Committee twice voted against it, calling for a $1.2 billion cut -- that is, until debate March 31 brought a radical reversal. Convinced at the last minute that the cuts would damage US commitments to the Middle East, refugees, and Cambodia and Nicaragua, the Senate committee decided to abandon its cuts and make room for the emergency aid increases.

The action paves the way for the full Congress to approve some or most of the 1980 bill's emergency aid increases.

Given the pressures for budget cutting in all federal programs this year, officials with the International Development and Cooperation Agency, the top US foreign aid organ, are generally pleased with the President's relative restraint in cutting development-oriented projects abroad, spokesman Roger Cochetti says.

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