New unity for humanitarian groups. Private US organizations plan merger to channel aid to third world

CARE. Save the Children. Oxfam America. Overseas Education Fund. These four groups are examples of private and voluntary organizations (PVOs) that channel their energy into helping third-world people. They bring food to famine victims in Northern Africa and work with refugees in Southeast Asia. Rural housewives in El Salvador established a tomato-processing cooperative with the help of a nonprofit agency. Student exchange programs between developing countries and the United States are sponsored by another.

Until now, these agencies have been allied under two umbrella organizations: the American Council of Voluntary Agencies in Foreign Service and Private Agencies in International Development. Now the two organizations are set to merge, after more than a year of talks and planning. The new organization, which does not have a name yet, will enable PVOs to speak with one voice on development and aid issues, to share information, and to mix the best of the two organizations, say those involved in the merger.

These nonprofit, nongovernmental agencies are playing an increasingly important role in foreign aid from the United States. This year PVOs will receive $286 million from the US Agency for International Development (AID) - a sum that comprises more than 14 percent of its foreign-aid budget. They also receive funding from the US Agriculture and State Departments. Private donations to some 160 organizations registered with AID totaled more than $1 billion in 1983. Though some PVOs have been questioned in the past on how their dollars are spent, they are considered to be very cost-effective - both by the US government and the general public.

''US-based PVOs represent the human face of our bilateral foreign-aid program , because these PVOs are the people-to-people link between the United States and so many developing countries,'' says Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island, who supports expanding the role of these groups. ''Organizations such as CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, Save the Children, and Foster Parents Plan International have made an enormous contribution over the years, by not only improving the quality of lives through the provision of basic serices, but also by contributing to a better understanding between donor and recipient.''

The merger combines the more traditional, better-funded ACVA (American Council of Voluntary Agencies in Foreign Service) with the newer, more creative PAID (Private Agencies in International Development). Much of the impetus came from PVOs who were members of both groups and found duplication and a need for more exchange between the groups.

''There is no question that the community of PVOs is much stronger if it is united,'' says Peter J. Davies, executive director of Meals for Millions. ''We can be much more effective in telling our story to various constituencies.'' Those constituencies include the White House, federal agencies, Congress, foundations, churches, corporations, and the general public.

Some of that constituency agree with Mr. Davies.

''I believe this merger is a great leap forward by (the members of) the PVO community because it represents a sincere effort . . . to pool their resources and focus their efforts on a realistic agenda,'' says Senator Pell. ''That can only serve to strengthen the PVO community in the long run, because they can speak with one voice, something which is very important in Washington.''

''What happened was that two organizations were running in parallel directions,'' says David L. Guyer, president of Save the Children and chairman of ACVA.

ACVA has concentrated more on operational issues such as food distribution and migration and refugee programs. PAID was made mostly of agencies devoted to assisting development in third-world countries, and educating Americans to the impact of such assistance. Many groups are involved in a cross section of these activities. All work with the US government and the private sector.

Not all private agencies favored the merger, particularly those that specialize in migration and refugee issues under the American Council. Since such agencies meet almost weekly and handle the bulk of US government contracts for resettlement efforts, the ACVA staff is experienced and works smoothly with these agencies. Leaders in the new organization say these agencies will still have the staffing they need.

''Yes, we will join (the new organization),'' says Wells C. Klein, executive director of the American Council for Nationalities Service, which helps immigrants in the US. He voted against the merger, which he calls ''a bit precipitous.'' If the new organization meets the special needs of the refugee and resettlement community, the agencies will ''all be quite happy,'' Mr. Klein says. But ''we reserve the right to reevaluate any association.''

Leon Marian, executive director of ACVA, wonders whether there will be enough money and unity among a very diverse group to keep the new organization alive.

''If enough agencies stand on the side lines (deciding not to pay membership dues), there could be a disaster,'' he says. But Mr. Marian says he does ''totally endorse'' service to a wider community of PVOs.

Leaders in the merger movement are confident that PAID and ACVA members will join, and they hope to recruit new agencies. The new organization will have special standing committees on specialized areas: development assistance, development education, material resources, migration and refugees, public policy and federal relations, and fund raising.

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