Aid debate: Should US help nations that bite back?

Here are some factors in the urgent foreign aid debate Congress in waging: * Developing countries purchased 34 percent of total US exports in 1978 and the jobs of 1.2 million Americans depend on exports. Foreign aid helps such countries build a market for US goods.

* Congress is economizing; many feel a balanced budget is necessary to curb inflation. "Give away" money to poor countries is unpopular; there is no constituency loobying for them in Congress.

* The political influence of US dollars is under scrutiny: The US has given Afghanistan a half-billion dollars since 1946, yet it fell under Communist rule. Iran has received $1.3 billion since 1946, and now is violently anti-American. Nicaragua's dictator, Anastasio Somoza, got nearly $300 million, but failed to make the regime democratic and fell to leftist insurgents.

So the debate continues and approaches a climax.

Says Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, testifying for the current Carter administration $10.5 billion foreign aid budget for 1981:

"A policy which addresses in their own terms the genuine needs and priorities of third-world nations is a policy which also has the effect of helping the US compete effectively with the Soviets."

"But," Rep. Don Edwards (D) of California says, "closer scrutiny has revealed that many aid programs are not advancing US foreign policy and, indeed, are counterproductive to our objectives in some cases."

And, says Rep. Robert E. Bauman (R) of Maryland, putting the arguments in specific terms, "Iran was a classic example of our foreign aid being made as an investment; then a new government overthrew the old and we wasted all that money."

There is a third element in the heated controversy and one that has always influenced Americans -- compassion and good will.The Marshall Plan after World War II was based on the pragmatic theory that a restored Europe would benefit the United States, but there was a philanthropic motive, too.

The needs of developing countries are great -- almost a billion people in these lands live in absolute poverty, lacking minimal necessities like safe drinking water and access to rudimentary health care. One out of five children in developing countries do not reach five years of age, World Bank president Robert S. McNamara says.

In the tug of rival arguments it is almost certain that the administration's foreign aid budget will be cut. The question asked here is, how much?

A distinction is made between short-term disaster aid, to places like Cambodia and Nicaragua, and long-term foreign aid, like support for international regional banks. The disaster aid, though temporarily stalled, shows prospect of ultimate passage; long-term foreign aid is threatened.

Mr. Carter's original foreign aid budget already has been trimmed in Congress to $8.1 billion. Proposals for $75 million for Nicaragua and $30 million for Cambodia mark time. A vocal congressional minority has always opposed "give away" foreign aid, although the currently budgeted 0.3 percent of US national income is less than half the 0.7 percent given in 1970, and is substantially lower than the proportion of national income devoted by Canada, Britain, France, and Scandinavian countries.

But when Congress is planning a budget that will require sacrifices from unemployed and other needy Americans, it finds it difficult to include foreign aid assistance in it.

The Senate approved the Nicaraguan foreign aid bill that President Carter said last fall was essential to support middle-road political forces there. The House barely passed it, and it now is caught in the budget battle.

Favoring deeper cuts is the "Coalition for Fiscal Responsibility," a bipartisan coalition that includes House Budget Committee member James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma, many Southern Democrats, and most House Republican leaders. IT would cut $1.1 billion from international activities, including half of the United States's assessed contributions to the United Nations, and 27 percent of State Department appropriations.

This quasi-isolationist drive isn't likely to prevail; on the other hand, the fight against foreign adi may be the stiffest in history. Foreign aid administrator Douglas J. Bennett says rather disparingly: "We will simply have to find a way to accomplish more with less."

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