A new report reopens an old issue: Does US aid to an underdeveloped nation, in this case El Salvador, actually get to the people who need it? Or is much of it siphoned off by corrupt political and military leaders for their personal use , as sometimes has occurred in the past?
The report, by the General Accounting Office, finds that no one knows what has happened to much of the aid sent to El Salvador by the United States. It thus implicitly strengthens persistent reports that members of the controlling Salvadorean oligarchy have illegally put much of the money in their personal bank accounts in Miami and elsewhere.
The report further dims the prospect that Congress, faced with a $200 billion annual domestic deficit, will increase economic aid to El Salvador to the level sought by the Reagan administration. Congress cannot be expected to approve, nor the American public to support, a substantial aid increase unless strict controls are instituted now by the US to ensure that economic assistance is used for its intended purpose. Congress should require such controls as a condition for approving additional aid.
One approach might be to change the economic aid program for El Salvador so that it parallels the US government's international emergency food program. Under this approach commodities rather than money are provided. Generally they are distributed by a private, nonprofit organization. An agency of the receiving government is used only when American officials are sure it is efficient and free of corruption.
Even without the GAO findings the Reagan administration faces a major challenge in obtaining congressional approval for more economic funding. One big problem: human rights violations by rightists. Both the US and Salvadorean governments say the situation is improving, yet civilian killings continue.
This week the legal aid section of the Roman Catholic Church reported that a total of 492 people were assassinated in January by rightist or leftist death squads. Most specialists hold that a substantial majority of the killings are by the right.
An additional problem for the administration is that many members of Congress are increasingly concerned that the US-backed government and its Army are losing the struggle to the communist-backed rebels and have little hope of winning, whatever the level of US assistance.
Faced with these difficulties, the administration has been handed another in the form of the GAO report. If its effects are to be countered, firm controls to monitor US economic funds must be enacted.