America's retrenchment on foreign aid to the rest of the world has been appalling. It is a measure of the low esteem to which such aid has fallen that the Congress never did pass an appropriation bill for fiscal 1980. Aid programs had to function under something called a continuing resolution. Nor did the lawmakers get around before the election to acting on an authorization bill for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
But there finally is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. With the reported approval of Ronald Reagan's transition team, a Senate-House conference this week takes up the $7.2 billion spending authorization bill for fiscal 1981. The Congress may also consider a bill to authorize $3.2 billion in new funds for the World Bank's International Development Association (IDA).
The need to move forward on these measures cannot be stressed enough. If they are not passed, the new Congress and administration will face a pileup of aid authorization bills approaching a staggering $20 billion, including the assistance bill for fiscal 1982. And this is not even to mention the appropriation bills also required. It is presumably to avoid such a logjam that Reagan aides are supporting congressional action now.
Beyond the bureaucratic confusion, however, is the importance of the legislation itself. The replenishment of funds for IDA, which provides long-term low-interest loans for the poorest developing countries, is crucial. Some 33 nations participate in this venture. But, unless the US pledges its share of the $12 billion being donated (27 percent) for 1981-1983, IDA cannot receive new funds from the other donors because 80 percent of the total funding must be officially pledged before replenishment can take effect. Loans could come to a halt. Thus failure to act on the IDA bill -- as well as another piece of legislation appropriating $5.5 billion to subscribe an additional quota in the International Monetary Fund -- would signal that the Reagan administration perhaps intends to draw back from US support for the world's international lending institutions.
Where Ronald Reagan stands on the matter is not yet clear. Foreign aid was hardly a catchy subject in the election campaign. The Republican platform stresses bilateral as against multilateral aid and pointedly suggests that US economic assistance "is not a charitable venture." That unfortunately seems to convey a rejection of altruism in US actions abroad, an impression we hope President-elect Reagan moves quickly to dispel. Surely a humanitarian desire to help lift the world's destitute peoples must characterize the policy of any nation claiming to stand morally for something.
But, as is so often and rightly argued by aid proponents, humanitarianism also serves the national interest. The industrial countries of the West have a growing stake in the development of third-world nations -- as suppliers of raw materials, as trade partners and markets, as fellow earth inhabitants in addressing such global problems as nuclear nonproliferation, pollution, population growth. As West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has said, "Our peace and prosperity depend on whether or not we succeed in overcoming hunger in the third world and in achieving development based on stability."
Mr. Reagan believes the US must have a strong export policy. He is right. And it bears mentioning in this connection that in 1978 almost 40 percent of total US exports went to developing nations; and of that amount a high 26 percent went to non-OPEC nations. If American exports to the third world are to continue booming, however, it is necessary that the third world continue to develop as well. That is why foreign assistance is so essential; when effective and properly administered, it promotes economic growth for everyone. True, not all the poorest countries served by IDA provide vast export opportunities now for the US and other industrialized countries. But even they are potential markets. And meantime international aid helps foster the political stability needed for economic development to take place.
This lame-duck Congress, in short, can still perform responsibly by taking action on these foreign aid bills -- and Mr. Reagan, by supporting them, can begin now to set the tone for a humane as well as an efficient Republican administration.