The foreign aid challenge

Listen to the former Peace Corps man in charge of America's foreign aid, and Washington seems to consider foreign aid a success story that it intends to push forward.

Listen to the retiring head of the World Bank, and the present American contribution to development assistance sees a "disgracefully low."

We hope the first impression is no less true than the second. For the United States has to pull its weight in the industrial world's assistance to the third world, or it could find itself in ironic isolation: the postwar pioneer of helping other countries to help themselves could be left behind by those more alive to the need today.

At the moment, as World Bank president Robert McNamara said of the US, "there is no other large industrial nation providing as low a proportion of its national income to development assistance; it is disgraceful." Former Secretaries of State Vance and Muskie were similarly critical when Congress dragged its feet even on meeting existing commitments to multilateral aid agencies. The current Congress is, if anything, less enthusiastic about foreign aid in the midst of all the stress on the domestic economy. And at least the early signals from the new administration were mixed, to say the least.

If the US should slash its support for third- world development, Mr. McNamara warned, it would punish itself in ways often cited by those close to the problem: inflationary increases in the price of commodities made scracer by cutting World Bank support of their production; loss of domestic production and employment caused by reduced exports to third-world countries that account for a third of US exports now; increased military costs and national security risks owing to instability caused by setbacks in economic and social advancement.

Other industrial nations are displaying a heightened awareness of such developmental matters. Mr. McNamara notes that far more attention is paid to them by governments and media elsewhere than in the US. he doubts the American people have been kept up to date on how their interests are related to the development of other countries.

The new government in France is giving fresh impetus to third-world concerns. The West German and Austrian governments have strongly advocated the importance of progress in the so-called North-South excahnge. Japan, after a slow start, is taking on more responsibilities in aiding developing nations. OPEC members have played an increasing role in aid as well as agitation for technology transfer to the third world of which they consider themselves a part.

An alarm bell against failure to rise to the need is sounded by author Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. he alerted Europe to "the American challenge" twenty years ago; now he sees "the world challenge" as development of creative thought and other human capabilities in the populous third world. His proposals to link the computer and the village may seem unrealistic at present, but it is not too soon to be thinking of how the "information age" can serve to develop the globe's basic resource of individual human beingS.

Which brings us back to the ex-Peace Corps man mentioned at the beginning. He is M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the Agency for International Development. "People are the real resource," he told a State Department conference of editors earlier this month. He stressed the importance of training and education, as he told of AID plans in a context of how much foreign aid has accomplished in the past -- this in the face of current sniping at the whole idea of foreign aid. He cited "graduates" from US aid -- Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, for example -- that can themselves now participate in helping poorer countries.

At the same conference Secretary of State Haig described a responsible relationship with the developing world as one of the four pillars of US foreign policy. Later came word of a Caribbean aid plan and President Reagan's decision to go to the North-South summit in Mexico.

To be sure, administration discussions of aid often have an East-West political cast -- helping Amerca's friends, taking advantage of a third-world sense that there's more to gain from the West than from Moscow. And there are assumptions of reduced government funding, which could turn out to be very shortsighted, along with increased emphasis on participation by the private sector, which would be good in any case.

But the first signs of an administration almost hostile to foreign aid seem to have faded. It at least nominally supports authorization of the pledged US contribution to the International Development Association, currently in the midst of congressional controversy. The administration's actions now will determined how well it has learned what a State Department officer told a business gathering in the spring:

Probably the most important single postwar economic pheno menon has been the growth in global interdependence."

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