AID Needs New Support

Concerned about local conditions, the sluggish economy, and the deficit, Americans show waning enthusiasm for US role in foreign assistance

IN his April 21 Earth Day address, President Clinton wisely called for a strategic plan to increase United States environmental exports. But he failed to tie this proposal to the rest of the US foreign aid program, and thereby missed a great chance to rescue it from the doldrums. Altruism and national security, the principal justifications for US help to poor countries since World War II, no longer wash in Oshkosh.

With homeless crowding the streets, taxes rising, domestic public services on the decline, deficits persistent, and unemployment high, Americans want to keep their money at home. Regional conflicts, explosive population growth, and dismal third-world governance overseas further crimp our willingness to send dollars abroad.

Foreign aid is moribund, and the disarray within the Agency for International Development (AID) only compounds the unease. Long the flagship for US bilateral aid, it originally aimed at reducing poverty and achieving "economic development." But gradually, AID became entangled in extra responsibilities created by Congress.

These range from security assistance to friendly nations and balance-of-payments support for Egypt and Israel, to rental for US bases abroad. Disaster and famine relief also figure in AID's portfolio. So do HIV counseling, family planning services, and boosts for the US private sector. With such extra burdens, not to mention countless earmarks by legislators beholden to special interests, no wonder AID suffers from rudderless leadership and a poor self-image.

All this shows clearly on the bottom line. Back in the Marshall Plan era, we spent 2 to 3 percent of the gross national product (GNP) to rebuild Europe. In the 1970s a goal of 1 percent of GNP was set. We may think ourselves generous, but our aid spending has long ranked near the bottom of 18 rich-country donors belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 1991, for example, appropriations for all "foreign aid," including the congressional add-ons, sank to just 0.20 p ercent of our $6 trillion GNP. Only Ireland does less.

To reverse these trends, foreign aid needs a new rationale. Some progress is being made. After fierce bureaucratic tussles in AID's fragmented empire, the Clinton administration has proposed a new design for AID. As outlined by AID administrator-designate J. Brian Atwood in his Senate confirmation hearing last week, the rejuvenated program will echo earlier doctrine and break new ground.

As it did during the 1970s, AID will continue to emphasize "basic human needs" and democracy, aiming at better health, education, and family-planning services. It will also help poor nations achieve "sustainable development" through environmentally sound management of land and resources. To focus the agency on these concerns, the administration should also ask Congress to either redistribute AID's profusion of additional tasks to other agencies or to drop them. All of this meshes well with the agenda agr eed upon at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

STREAMLINING AID makes excellent sense. But the effort to recast foreign aid must not stop there. "Sustainable development" may mean even less than altruism on Capitol Hill and in the nation. Without political reinforcement, the new-look AID could continue to dodder along at present support levels or worse. This is where Mr. Clinton's call for environmental export enhancement comes in.

If the president wants to recapture public support for foreign aid, he must go beyond another bureaucratic reshuffle. He must tie giving help abroad to the creation of jobs at home. By helping US suppliers of environmental technologies and services export more, thus adding an anti-pollution thrust to our foreign-aid agenda, he can do just that.

Despite stiffening competition from Germany and Japan, the US environmental industry remains the world's largest, with at least $80 billion a year in sales. America's green companies employ 800,000 people, even though exports account for just 10 percent of their output. An export push into burgeoning global markets will dramatically increase their payrolls.

This orientation is not as novel as it might seem, for the market and the needs are well-defined. As developing countries industrialize and urbanize, they generate ever-greater amounts of dangerous waste.

While some pollution does not spread beyond national borders, most affects everybody. China, India, and Thailand, for example, possess substantial quantities of poorly burning coal that produce large global shares of acid rain and greenhouse gases. As in rich countries, citizens of developing and newly industrializing nations now realize the health hazards from pollution and are pressing for a cleanup. Their governments have slowly begun to respond, but they need assistance.

Our private companies and some of our national laboratories can give them what they need. Not AID, but other US government agencies with more expertise in business and finance should back this effort with real money.

By linking environmental export enhancement to an overdue streamlining of AID and greater attention to the population challenge, the Clinton administration can create an interagency foreign-aid effort appropriate to the times and able to rally broad support. The administration should not let the chance slip by.

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