MOVED by the plight of their homelands and eager to help out, ethnic Americans have become a secret weapon for the United States government in its effort to effectively aid the struggling nations of Central and Eastern Europe.
These volunteers are not to be confused with expatriates such as Milan Panic, the controversial American-Serbian businessman who is prime minister in the rump Yugoslavian government. They are US citizens - farmers, businessmen, doctors, even students - who want to help at the front lines of developing market economies from Poland to Bulgaria.
"They're going back in droves," Carol Adelman, assistant administrator for Europe of the US Agency for International Development (AID), told reporters.
Take Damon Szymanski, a Polish-American dairy farmer from Pulaski, Wis. Through a US-funded volunteer organization, he has traveled back to Poland to teach modern dairy management and agribusiness techniques.
Then there is Charles Huebner, a Hungarian-American who is manager of the Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund. AID's largest venture in Hungary, the fund has pumped more than $20 million in small-business loans into the country's economy.
Dr. John Kepes, a neuropathologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center, fled Hungary in 1956 as Soviet tanks crushed rebellion. Now he is shuttling to his native land to help set up a children's cancer-treatment program with $2.3 million in AID money.
US allies in Western Europe have often criticized the American attitude toward helping East and Central Europe as being long on talk and short on money - at least, shorter on money than some NATO countries' own programs.
But Dr. Adelman claimed that AID's part of the US assistance program, which emphasizes small grants via private organizations, loans to small businesses, and other grass-roots efforts, is second to none for value. The enthusiasm of ethnic communities is one reason why, she said.
Through three quarters of fiscal year 1992, AID disbursed a total of $561 million for East and Central European aid programs.
"Other countries have more money, but we're more effective," said Adelman.
One aspect of AID's approach is illustrated by its relationship with the Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (VOCA), a Washington-based private group. Over the last two years VOCA has received some $4.6 million in AID grants for programs in the East European region.
Mr. Szymanski is but one of the volunteers whose travels have been funded by this money. VOCA has backed more than 100 farm volunteers, as well as business experts to provide assistance for economic conversion. (The volunteers do not have to be ethnic Americans.)
A major AID effort is Enterprise Funds - private corporations with AID funding, set up to foster entrepreneurship in just about every nation in the region. They're intended to overcome a common obstacle: most of these countries don't have established systems through which prospective storekeepers, say, can borrow the $40,000 or so necessary to open their doors.
Other AID programs range from the MBA Enterprise Corps, which sends business school graduates to work in Central and Eastern Europe, to efforts to help Romanian children through a consortium of US charities.
Admittedly, these are small steps in a process that more than one economist has likened to attempting to turn fish soup back into an aquarium.
The money needed for such macro-economic activities as currency stabilization funds could dwarf micro-economic efforts. Help at the grass roots could be needed for years.
"The needs are vast," says Robert Hutchings, special adviser for East European Assistance to the Deputy Secretary of State.