Dispelling a Few of the Myths About US Foreign Aid

AMERICANS have always been enamored by the power of myth. Bigfoot. The Bermuda Triangle. Elvis sightings. And no myth has provided more enduring fodder for those eager to have the United States abandon its international leadership than the notion that foreign assistance has no positive effect in support of US national interests.

Few realize how well American foreign-assistance programs have worked. When the Marshall Plan was announced in 1947, only 18 percent of Americans supported that visionary US effort to rebuild war-torn Europe. The Marshall Plan was America's first real venture into foreign assistance.

Today many agree that the Marshall Plan was this country's single most successful foreign-policy initiative ever.

Assisting in the reconstruction of Europe shored up prosperity and political stability as a bulwark against communist expansion and encouraged European integration. Looking back, it is clear that the Marshall Plan was a sound investment. It strengthened our closest allies and created our best trading partners and new donors to join our efforts to create other areas of political and economic stability.

In the 1960s and '70s, many pundits decried US assistance to South Korea, Taiwan, India, and Mexico. Conventional wisdom was that these countries offered almost no promise for economic development. Conventional wisdom proved wrong again. US assistance programs helped produce a remarkable transformation, ushering in a period of unprecedented growth in these countries' economies. US technical assistance to researchers and farmers during the 1970s helped lead to the ``green revolution'' in India, sparking the most dramatic increase in agricultural yields in the history of mankind. If food production had not increased, many would have faced starvation, and the US would have been called on to assist these hungry people at great cost. With its increased food production, India has remained politically stable, and its population of 900 million now constitutes one of the most promising marketplaces for US goods.

Just over 30 years ago, US assistance to South Korea equaled around 7 percent of that country's total gross national product. South Korea was an aid-dependent country. Today, South Korea receives no aid at all. On the contrary, South Korea provides over $100 million in assistance to poorer nations annually. In 1993 alone, the US exported $14.8 billion worth of goods and services to South Korea.

Was US assistance to South Korea a sound investment? You bet. The $14.8 billion worth of exports the US sent to South Korea in 1993 is more than the total assistance we gave South Korea in the 1960s and '70s.

Today, many still doubt the merit of foreign-assistance programs. Some claim that the US should disengage from Africa, the former Soviet Union, Latin America, and the poorest nations of Asia. This would be painfully shortsighted. By the year 2000, 4 out of every 5 consumers will live in the developing world. These markets are increasingly important to the American economy. To remain competitive, we must think where our export markets will be 15 and 20 years from now. Foreign assistance is building the markets of the future, just as it has done in the past.

US exports to developing nations and the former Soviet Union have been the fastest-growing sector of America's economy in recent years; they will be the boom markets of the next century. US assistance programs lay the groundwork for American trade and investment by promoting fair regulations for banking and tariffs, ensuring equitable treatment of investors under the law, establishing sound public institutions, and advancing democratic governance. Creating the next generation of new markets is clearly in the best interests of the United States.

Most Americans think foreign assistance makes up more than 20 percent of the federal budget. In fact, only one-half of 1 percent of the budget actually goes toward economic and humanitarian assistance abroad.

This small investment means more than just economic growth. Last year, 3 million people were served by US immunization programs around the globe. US leadership and assistance for elections has helped 28 nations make the transition to democracy in the last 15 years. American programs in child survival have helped lower infant mortality rates 10 percent in just eight years. US programs in education have contributed to a 33 percent rise in worldwide literacy rates.

US foreign-assistance programs have survived because they are effective and they are in this country's best interest. Foreign assistance embodies the best qualities of America - leadership, compassion for others, and a commitment to promoting the values that we hold dear.

It can only be hoped that in today's highly charged political atmosphere, America is not tempted to sacrifice its international leadership for the convenience of myth. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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