Revamping US foreign aid to help the hungry

AS we prepare to count our blessings at Thanksgiving, many of us feel a special obligation to help those less fortunate. With world hunger increasingly pressing our own consciences, many Americans no doubt ask: Isn't United States foreign aid the appropriate channel through which we can help the hungry? In light of Americans' demonstrated generosity, most would probably be chagrined to learn just how little foreign aid we ``give.'' US aid as a percentage of the gross national product is half that of West Germany, for example, and less than one-seventh that of Norway.

But Americans would be even more troubled to learn that it is not the stinginess of our aid that poses the problem for the world's hungry. It is the nature of our aid. US foreign aid is an obstacle in the path of the hungry. How can this be?

The focus of US foreign assistance has nothing to do with need. It is tightly concentrated -- just 10 countries get half of all our bilateral economic assistance. Israel and Egypt alone get one-quarter. Among the top 10 recipients, only one is in sub-Saharan Africa -- the Sudan. The US ships six times as much food aid per capita to those governments it chooses to support in Central America as to the entire sub-Saharan region in Africa, ravaged by famine.

US aid is concentrated on recipients dead set against economic reforms on behalf of the poor. El Salvador, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines -- all among the top 10 recipients of our economic assistance -- are notorious for their intransigent resistance to reforms.

Foreign aid is only as good as the recipient government. Where that government answers only to a narrow economic elite, not to the majority, our aid not only fails to reach the hungry, it girds the very forces working against them. Since the imposition of martial law in the Philippines in 1972, American tax dollars have provided almost $1 billion in economic assistance alone. Yet the World Health Organization has concluded that Filipinos under this one-family rule have come to be among the most un dernourished people in all Asia.

United States foreign aid has always been a tool of our foreign policy. The Reagan administration has made explicit, indeed boasted about, what had previously been the implicit role of foreign aid. President Reagan's first secretary of state, Alexander Haig, summed it up: US aid will go in ``overwhelming proportion . . . to nations which share our strategic concerns or which are situated to improve our own diplomatic and military capabilities.''

Since 1983, US aid has explicitly hinged on whether a nation votes with us in the United Nations. Miffed by two votes by Zimbabwe in the UN in 1983, the State Department cut its aid by almost half, even though Zimbabwe is notable for programs benefiting small-holder farmers.

Only 16 percent of our foreign assistance now goes for ``development assistance.'' Even then, most of this goes for building infrastructure, and private-enterprise development, primarily benefiting the already economically well positioned.

Military assistance now dominates US aid. Under this administration, military aid has swelled from 25 percent to 43 percent of our total aid budget. It is used by numerous of the governments not primarily to arm themselves against foreign foes but against challenges of their own citizens denied even their most basic survival rights -- land and jobs.

Over the last five years, the number of African countries receiving US military assistance has leaped from 16 to 37. While food aid to Africa has fallen, military assistance in proposed 1986 allocations to that continent has shot up threefold compared with 1980. Anyone familiar with the plight of the hungry in Africa knows that this is what they do not need.

Our foreign aid program also supports the military buildup of our third-world allies through the ``Economic Support Fund'' (ESF) -- now 28 percent of US bilateral aid. It is simply a budgetary prop for recipient governments to use as they see fit. More often than not, they use our ESF tax dollars to cover deficits incurred through heavy military expenditures. Similarly, almost two-thirds of US food aid is sold by recipient governments, the proceeds going to the military or any other budget category.

Contemplating these disturbing facts about our aid -- discovering that our aid overwhelmingly bolsters the privileged against the hungry -- some conclude that our efforts should go toward reforming aid. Can't we, they ask, just work to get our government to shift more of its aid to the poor?

However reasonable this proposal sounds, we have come to see such efforts as futile until a prior change is brought about.

Since it is the responsibility, indeed the mandate, of every government to pursue the national interest, every nation's foreign policy -- of which foreign aid is a part -- inevitably reflects the way it understands the national interest. We conclude, therefore, that our government's foreign aid will change only when the very definition of our national interest has changed.

Under this administration, perhaps even more than any other in our lifetimes, our national interest is judged to rest in protecting the status quo, shoring up governments in power, no matter how unsavory, as long as they profess to be on ``our side.''

But change -- profound, societywide change in control over food-producing resources -- is a sine qua non for ending hunger. Thus it is impossible for us to be both against change and for the hungry.

More to our point, our national interest is not served by the maintenance of repressive governments whose policies impoverish so many of their own citizens. As Wall Street Journal writer Jonathan Kwitney persuasively argues, such a shortsighted view ends up creating what he calls ``endless enemies.'' We must learn that less control -- less attempt to make the world conform to our fears -- means more security for us.

As Americans concerned about our responsibility to the increasing numbers of the hungry, we should see that our work not be to ``reform'' aid. We have a prior task -- to awaken our fellow citizens to a different understanding of our national interest: that it is not served but undermined by policies that shore up repressive governments against the demands for change by their own hungry.

Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, co-founders of the San Francisco-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, are co-authors of ``Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity.''

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