Most United States humanitarian aid projects in El Salvador are administered by the Salvadorean government. This approach to dispensing aid angers some local and international relief organizations, which charge that programs supported by the US Agency for International Development are being used for political ends in this country's civil war.
Several organizations that provide relief here, including the Roman Catholic Church, refuse to work with many US AID projects.
''The reason,'' says a priest who works in the archbishop's office, ''is that the Salvadorean and US governments have an agenda that has nothing to do with humanitarian aid.
''This system of assistance is a filter, an indirect way by the Salvadorean and US governments to control the poor. Army and Salvadorean government officials often distribute the food. They use this food to buy votes, sympathy, as well as keep a close rein on displaced people,'' this priest says.
US officials here describe the AID programs as developmental. The -Salvadore- an agency that coordinates the restoration and relief efforts - in large part funded by US AID - is the National Committee for the Restoration of Areas (CONARA). Its programs are loosely modeled on those sponsored by the US government in Vietnam in the 1960s.
''The goal of CONARA,'' says the program's director, Col. Luis Alonso Amaya, ''is first to give the Salvadorean government credibility with the populace and secondly to give the Salvadorean government credibility with the US Congress.''
The program is designed to do much more than restore government services to areas where they had been reduced or cut off during fighting, he says. ''We are ultimately working to reinvigorate the ethical and spiritual life of families whose faith in us has been destroyed by the war.''
A key aspect of the US program in Vietnam was a combination of civil and military operations under one unified management. Colonel Amaya, a former professor of military history and strategy, says, ''The difference between the (Vietnam and Salvador) programs is that CONARA contracts the local communities to do their own development and does not depend solely on the United States for its support.''
CONARA has been in operation for more than a year. But its projects, which are chiefly in San Vicente and Usulutan provinces, have intensified only in the last seven months. It is building local government organizations, coordinating efforts to restore the infrastructure, and training new civil defense patrols.
Colonel Amaya points to the 30 miles of repaired roads, the reactivation of six large farms, and the replacement of 48 schools in San Vicente as signs of success for CONARA.
''Ten thousand displaced people have returned to their homes in San Vicente, '' he says, ''because we can provide security and work.'' (However, US officials involved in the project say the number of people who returned to their original locations is no more than 200.)
Displaced families interviewed by the Monitor in San Vicente Province were less enthusiastic about CONARA's relocation program than was Amaya. They claimed that leftist guerrillas and Salvadorean Army troops regularly fight in the countryside and that they do not feel secure going back into such a setting.
A woman who had left the countryside to seek shelter in a relocation camp says, ''People from CONARA came to our camp and told us that we would not receive help if we stayed, but we would have support if we returned to work on the government farms.'' She and others feel CONARA is forcing them back to the countryside before it is safe for them to go back. Others charge Salvadorean officials are doing this to create a belief that the Army and the government are in control in some areas when in fact they are not - at least not to the degree claimed.
David Bonilla, coordinator of CARITAS relief services in San Vicente, says water supplies to the camp are expected to cut off soon. He charges that deliveries of US-donated food will also be terminated shortly in an effort to force reluctant peasants back to the countryside.
''The cutting off of water to the camp,'' he says, ''will close down the latrine system, destroying any kind of sanitation we now have. It will make living conditions in the camp almost impossible and expose those who try to remain to severe health risks.''
Relief workers say that when Col. Juan Pablo Galvez, CONARA's coordinator for San Vicente, and AID officials visited this camp last July, several hundred displaced people in the camp were gathered together and told to return to the countryside or they would no longer receive assistance.
In addition, displaced persons who have been employed at $1.50 a day on AID-funded road construction crews say their jobs ended recently.
''We suspect it is just another effort to push us back into the countryside, '' one man said.
AID officials here say the job terminations had nothing to do with pushing displaced people back into the countryside. The particular project was scheduled to end at that time, they say.
Another aspect of CONARA's program is the recruiting and training local leaders, according to Amaya.
''We have set out to repair a schism that has occurred between the populace and the government,'' Amaya says. ''Our first step has been to reeducate people about the possibilities of the democratic system.''
CONARA has sent teams into local communities to Amaya to give seminars on the democratic process, Amaya says. Salvadorean intellectuals and the Roman Catholic Church are highly critical of this practice.
A high-ranking military official says Amaya is also creating a political party, which would be in the mold of the National Conciliation Party, the oligarchic party that dominated power here for years. This official criticized the formation of such a party and charged that ''the reeducation is slanted to the far right and the leadership that is being groomed is sympathetic to the oligarchy.''
Colonel Amaya refuses to give figures on the numbers of people involved in the reeducation program, but he says it is ''immense.'' Once contact is made with local leaders, a line of communication is set up from village to municipality to province and, finally, to the national CONARA office. The CONARA-trained leaders have the power to determine community needs and acquire resources through CONARA. In most cases, Amaya says, an effort is made to restore government services that had been terminated because of fighting.
''Only the large or controversial aid requests end up in the national office.'' Amaya says.
The benefit of this system, Amaya says, is that it links small towns to the national government.
''We want to put the people's faith in the vote, and not the bullet,'' Amaya says, ''so we make sure local leaders can deliver needed essentials to their community.'' Next: Helping Salvadoreans displaced by war