THE WORLD FROM...Washington

Conference on aid to the ex-Soviet republics did not distract attention of relief groups from third world

JUDGING by the number of limos bearing foreign ministers clogging the streets of Washington last week, one really might have thought this town was the hub of the universe.

With high-level delegations from 47 nations and seven international organizations in attendance, the governmental and diplomatic niceties flew thick and fast. But beneath the surface at the conference on aid to the former Soviet Union - the first-of-its-kind confab on aid to any part of the world, let alone one that isn't even technically the third world - there lurked a tone of European condescension.

The United States, after all, had come up with only modest aid (about $5 billion, mostly in grain credits) compared with the Europeans and yet had seized the initiative to convene a big meeting, without advance consultation, to "coordinate" aid.

The main coordination that seems to have been achieved, says a State Department official, is a sharing of information. Action plans drafted by working groups were vaguely worded. Frans Andriessen, vice president of the European Commission, said tepidly at a press briefing, "This might be a historic conference if it is followed by concrete action."

State Department officials privately admit that the Bush administration was responding to a perception that it had lagged on aid, and that this perception had become a liability, particularly with public opinion in Western Europe.

Paul Goble, an expert on ex-Soviet nationalities, formerly of the State Department and now of the Carnegie Endowment, lobbed verbal hand grenades at his former employer. "It was an excuse for not doing anything," he grumbled, adding that US embarrassment was only highlighted by this conference. "I'm delighted we did it, though."

Across town, a parallel conference of some 200 nongovernmental organizations - ranging from CARE to the Idaho Potato Commission - got virtually no media attention. But participants said it seemed a worthwhile exercise in networking.

The dilemma for the old, established aid organizations is that countries like Somalia, Mozambique, and Haiti are desperate for help, but it's the spinoff Soviet republics that have captured world attention and inspired new donations.

"It's been agonizing," says Charles Sykes, vice president of CARE. "We're afraid of diverting resources." But, he adds, there's also concern that if they do nothing now, the Soviet situation could deteriorate and lead to even greater need.

CARE has decided to forgo the parts of the former Soviet Union that are being aided by natural constituencies in the West, like western Russia and Ukraine, and set up programs in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Urals. But there's no way Mr. Sykes, who lobbies on Capitol Hill, will go to bat for the former Soviets in Congress. He says he's got to save his capital for the real hardship cases, like Somalia and Mozambique.

So many organizations without foreign humanitarian experience are getting into the ex-Soviet aid game that a corporate-sponsored umbrella organization, called the Fund for Democracy and Development, has been formed in Washington to lend advice and coordinate efforts.

At the same time, at least one of the big boys of development has decided to steer clear altogether: Oxfam America, with programs in 26 developing nations, won't set up any programs in the former Soviet Union, under its policy of not providing emergency aid to areas where it is not already involved.

"We feel problems are pressing elsewhere," says spokesman Michael Briggs.

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