Foreign aid is like motherhood and apple pie: It's hard to argue against it, especially given the appalling global statistics relating to poverty and hunger. But just as there are lousy mothers and rotten apples, there are also inept foreign aid programs. Is United States aid - totaling $14.4 billion in 1988 - doing what it ought to do? Is it really closing the gap between the industrial nations and the developing world?
The short answer is, ``no.''
From nearly every perspective, the rich nations are getting richer and the poor poorer. Not that there haven't been plenty of efforts to help: Money, both public and private, has been thrown in every which way.
Yet the skeletons of failed development projects hang in nearly every third-world nation's closet. And still the gap widens. How can so many billions have produced such indifferent results?
That, in effect, was the question asked this spring by a bipartisan coalition of 153 representatives and 18 senators who cosponsored the Global Poverty Reduction Act. If passed, it would instruct the president to ``develop a plan to ensure that United States development assistance contributes measurably to eradicating the worst aspects of absolute poverty by the year 2000.''
Elegant in its simplicity, the bill cuts through decades of confusion and focuses on the core of the problem. Its operative term, ``measurably,'' is bolstered by specifics. By the year 2000, it says, the basic global goals (to which the president may add) are:
1.An under-5 mortality rate of no more than 70 deaths per 1,000 live births.
2.A female literacy rate of 80 percent.
3.Not more than 20 percent of a nation's population living in absolute poverty, defined as an income level so low that minimum nutrition and non-food requirements are not affordable.
The first and third goals - reducing poverty and saving lives - are obvious enough. The genius of the bill lies in the second goal. Why should women learn to read? Because, of all the things you can measure, few are more certain to reduce child mortality than the mother's education. When child mortality is lowered, the pressure to produce large families drops. And that helps reduce excessive population growth, which so imperils the world's future.
Other goals, of course, could have been included. But this bill wisely hews to the middle ground. Critics on the negative-population-growth side will argue for including stringent birth-control measures. Critics on the export-led development side will insist that the best measure of success is a developing nation's ability to enhance its gross national product. But population control can become alarmingly authoritarian: The Draconian one-child-per-couple policy pioneered by the Chinese is not a world model. Nor do average income levels tell very much about living standards: In Oman, for example, where per capita GNP stood at a relatively comfortable $6,730 in 1985, 1 out of every 6 children died before reaching age 5.
What are the bill's chances of passage? The US Agency for International Development says operational sections of the bill are unclear - an odd complaint, since the operational details are left to the president - and that its provisions should be integrated into a scheduled rewriting of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Meanwhile, presidential candidate Michael Dukakis has endorsed it, and a groundswell of Republicans on Capitol Hill is encouraging George Bush to do the same.
The fact that the bill has come this far, however, says something significant about changing US views of foreign assistance. The days of using US aid to line the pockets of foreign elites - or to buy markets abroad, or to reward ideologues - would appear to be numbered. Fast approaching is the day when aid must help all of a nation's people, have a verifiable impact, and bring results in the foreseeable future.
Braiding together three of the strongest strands of the nation's character - idealism, pragmatism, and immediacy - the bill is an authentically American expression of global concern. As such, it deserves to become law.
A Monday column