Foreign Aid at the Crossroads

IS there strong support in the United States for humanitarian foreign aid? I think there is. Such support developed during the Marshall Plan, when the US helped to rebuild a devastated Europe, and has remained constant through struggles to address domestic problems. Now it seems the support is being ignored as Congress and the administration wrestle with the question of US foreign assistance. Americans have repeatedly demonstrated compassion for their global neighbors, giving generously when disasters have occurred. In addition, for more than 30 years Americans have generously supported longer-term, development-oriented programs through hundreds of private voluntary organizations that provide humanitarian assistance abroad.

Such private organizations are the conduit between the developing world and the humanitarian desire of the American people to do something to improve the lives of others. They receive well over $1.5 billion from private donors throughout the US each year. In addition, they have increasingly worked together with the official US government aid agency, the Agency for International Development, helping the government deliver programs and services worth about $500 million a year.

The future of these cooperative humanitarian programs hinges on an important debate in Congress. A key committee has proposed reevaluating how and why we give foreign aid. Fundamental questions have been raised about whether foreign aid is - or should be - primarily a reflection of humanitarian concerns, or a vehicle of US economic and security philosophies and interests.

The US foreign-assistance program has always had competing goals. From all indications, the Bush administration is planning to continue Reagan-era policies: a heavy emphasis on military and political security and on exporting supply-side economics. This year's budget request once again calls for higher percentage increases in the military and economic security accounts than in humanitarian development aid.

Moreover, the newly reappointed administrator of the foreign aid program, Ambassador Alan Woods, is now arguing publicly that past development assistance programs have not worked. He contends that the solution is to use foreign aid resources primarily to encourage third-world governments to change policies that are felt to impede economic activity. Mr. Woods contends that this will help attract investment, create jobs, and stimulate market-oriented growth. Supposedly the resulting prosperity is to trickle down and ultimately help the poor.

Certainly economic policies are critical to sustained national growth. Yet such intervention in economic policy is the specialty of international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which use the resources of a large number of donor nations. Assistance from the US itself should be different. I am convinced that bilateral aid programs are much more likely to result in long-lasting, sustainable growth, if oriented to helping people address the root causes of their poverty.

President Bush has spoken eloquently of the ``thousand points of light'' - individuals and private organizations meeting needs at the community level. He and his stewards of foreign aid need to recognize the application of this metaphor in the foreign aid arena. Foreign aid with a human face, attacking poverty at the village level, will do more to strengthen the social and economic fabric of the third world than pouring millions into military grants and balance-of-payments assistance.

Surely the ``thousand points of light'' philosophy is best exemplified by the kinds of people-to-people programs that hundreds of private voluntary organizations such as CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam America, World Vision, and Church World Service have been carrying out in partnership with local community groups, cooperatives, farmers associations, and women's clubs. These programs are aimed at helping build and strengthen local institutions, achieving the democratic pluralism that is a counterweight to autocratic governments.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee's move to revamp the foreign aid program provides an opportunity to ensure that US policy better achieves a humanitarian focus.

After almost 30 years in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa, I am convinced that we should, we must, recognize the comparative advantage of people-to-people approaches and not perpetuate the mistakes of the past.

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