Arms and aid

A top-level administration panel has come up with two proposals that deserve careful consideration by Congress and the American people: 1. Merge all major foreign aid programs - economic aid and military assistance - into one new agency. Currently they are administered by separate offices.

2. Increase the annual US contribution for foreign aid.

There was a time, not so many years ago, that US citizens prided themselves on their foreign aid programs. During the late 1940s, and then again in the early '60s, economic assistance programs were looked upon as vital expressions of American idealism. In recent years, as Americans have turned inward after Vietnam and tended to see assistance primarily in terms of military assistance, foreign aid requests have not fared well in Congress. Only one full foreign aid bill has gotten by lawmakers in the past five years. Total funding continues to fall. On a per capita basis, Americans spend around $44 a year on foreign aid. That is proportionately far less than the amount spent by taxpayers in several European nations.

To merge all foreign aid programs into a single department would require the abolition of the existing Agency for International Development. Congress will want to look at that particular proposal so as to avoid any unwise consequences. Would, for example, economic aid be ''tainted'' by linkage with military assistance? Military assistance is now administered by the State Department in association with the Pentagon. Would military aid overtake economic aid in such an arrangement? Certainly, lawmakers should be concerned if either situation were to occur.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for coordination of foreign aid programs if safeguards protecting economic aid are built into such a single agency - and if the result is increased US funding. What is important to recall is that foreign aid programs - insofar as they help other nations - also work to the advantage of the United States. That is, as recipient nations are put on a sounder economic and security footing, they are better able to trade and enjoy amicable relations with the US. Foreign aid can be taxpayer money well spent.

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