A Flap Over Privatizing Foreign Aid

Sen. Jesse Helms wants some foreign aid administered by private groups such as the Red Cross, but critics, including aid groups themselves, envision abuses

A SENATE Republican plan to abolish the United States Agency for International Development (AID) and privatize foreign aid has drawn a skeptical response from an unlikely quarter: the very nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that would profit from it most.

''The notion that NGOs can substitute for the government is just plain nonsense,'' says Andrew Natsios, vice president of World Vision, a privately funded humanitarian organization.

The plan, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, will help save money and eliminate duplication in US aid programs abroad, say committee staffers familiar with its details.

Under the Helms plan, long-term development projects now administered by AID and other agencies would be taken over by an International Development Foundation. The foundation would be part of the State Department and managed by directors from the department and NGOs active in the development field.

Other programs administered by AID, including various bilateral economic, political, human rights, and democracy-building programs, would be absorbed into the department's regional bureaus in Washington.

After a brief transition period, AID missions abroad would be abolished. ''We'll get rid of the middle man and give the NGOs block grants,'' says a committee source.

Spokesmen for several NGOs acknowledge that waste and inefficiency have been problems at AID and that NGOs have been remarkably efficient providers of everything from health care to advice on farming techniques in poor nations.

The weight of AID

Even so, says another senior NGO official, there are things NGOs can't do themselves. NGOs can't deal head-to-head with foreign governments the way a local AID mission can to prevent a government from interfering with a project, for example, or prodding needed institutional reforms.

As for relying on the local ambassador, says the NGO official flatly, ''ambassadors don't understand aid issues.''

NGOs also express concern that transferring some of AID's functions to State will be, in Mr. Natsios's words, ''an invitation to serious managerial problems.''

State Department officials are good at making policy and mediating disputes, says Natsios, a former Republican state legislator. But, unlike AID officials, they have no experience designing, managing, and evaluating local projects.

Nor are NGOs always sympathetic to US policy abroad. Some have turned down AID grants because of policy differences with Washington.

Under the Helms proposal, which will be spelled out in legislation that is likely to be introduced next month, the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the US Information Agency (USIA) would also be abolished.

The idea of merging the aid, disarmament, and information functions into the State Department was first proposed last month by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

It was greeted with angry opposition from the heads of the three agencies and after a brief review rejected by Vice President Al Gore, point-man for the administration's initiative to streamline the operations of the federal government.

The broad outlines of Helms's plan were laid out in an article written two weeks ago for the Washington Post.

Putting Mr. Christopher in an uncomfortable spot, Helms described Christopher's proposal as ''remarkably bold and innovative'' and cautioned that it ''must not be sacrificed on the altar of bureaucratic self-preservation.''

''The reality is that aid is going to get cut, Helms or no Helms,'' says the committee source. ''So the question is, do you put it into the pockets of bureaucrats or invest it in local projects where it can do the most good.''

Campaign for survival

The reorganization plan has elicited the backing of House and Senate Republican leaders. But a recent White House statement says that AID, ACDA, and USIA ''should continue to pursue their missions as independent agencies.''

AID officials have mounted an active campaign against the reorganization plan, arguing that the State Department might politicize US foreign aid, placing short-term political considerations ahead of the long-term economic and social development of poor nations -- the very circumstance that has led to abuses in aid programs in the past.

AID officials also tout recent efforts to eliminate bureaucratic waste. In the past two years the agency's staff has been cut by 10 percent, 23 AID missions have been shut down, and accounting and procurement procedures have been revamped.

''It's ironic that AID's existence is in jeopardy at a time when it appears finally to be moving in the right direction,'' says Julia Taft, president of InterAction, a coalition of 160 relief and development agencies.

Natsios says Helms and other lawmakers are trying to make an imprint on foreign policy because of the absence of presidential leadership on the issue.

But he and other NGO spokesmen say the purpose, not the mechanism, of foreign aid should be the focus of the debate.

''The real debate needs to be over what threats we face, what our national interests are, and what role foreign aid should play in the post-cold-war era,'' the senior NGO official says.

NGO officials say putting more foreign aid into private hands is not a bad idea, per se. But they worry that the real purpose behind Helms's proposal is to eviscerate foreign aid.

''If anyone but Helms had proposed this,'' rejoins the committee source, ''they'd be calling it innovative and brilliant.''

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