Foreign Aid Fallacies

ONE of the cheaper shots in Washington's current budget politics is a swipe at foreign aid. It's politically painless to rail against pouring money down ``sinkholes'' abroad.

The fallacies here are many. To begin with, consider how often problems abroad end up on the doorstep of the United States - refugee flows, population explosions, hopelessness that leads to bursts of nationalism and ethnic strife. Aid can't solve these problems, but it can help address underlying causes - inadequate education, a lack of opportunity.

Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development (AID), which distributes most US foreign assistance, makes the point that money spent to alleviate such conditions is a sound investment, not a handout. If foreign aid is eliminated, as demanded by some in Congress, the result could be larger outlays down the line as crises deepen overseas.

Another fallacy: that foreign aid is a big chunk of the budget spent to little avail. In fact, aid tops out at barely 1 percent of the federal budget - far from the 15 to 20 percent Americans typically estimate.

And the efficacy of such ``big'' spending? Certainly there have been ``sinkholes,'' but many of them were cold-war ``dominoes'' whose corrupt leaders were paid off with aid dollars to keep them from going communist. Those days are, we hope, gone forever. Meanwhile, the examples of credible development projects, including efforts to train and motivate native people who can then make a difference in their own countries, are many.

Mr. Atwood has not been reluctant to streamline his agency. He has closed offices and pushed for better accountability. But he has correctly resisted attempts to merge his agency into the State Department. Ideally, AID should be nonpolitical and humanitarian, a goal best served by maintaining its independence.

No argument may be good enough to cool the zeal of those in Congress who view aid as an overseas version of ``welfare'' and want it axed.

Thoughtful lawmakers, however, will recognize foreign assistance as an indispensable way of keeping Americans engaged with a world where the future of people thousands of miles away is intertwined with their own.

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