FEW programs in the Federal budget are more vulnerable in this season of budget cutting than foreign aid. And few recipients of foreign aid are more vulnerable than those who need it most: the nations of Africa.
Apparent majorities in the House and Senate say the case for cutting or eliminating the $800 million now earmarked for Africa is clear: With limited resources available, the United States has to concentrate its giving on regions, like the Middle East, where its interests are directly on the line.
But worried Clinton administration officials and nongovernmental organizations that work in Africa warn that if planned cuts are implemented the results could be catastrophic for a continent already burdened by food shortages, overpopulation, massive debt, political instability, and runaway AIDS infection rates.
''If the US cuts aid to Russia, the pace of economic reform will be slowed and important American interests will be harmed,'' says President Clinton's National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. ''If the US cuts aid to Africa, while our interests are less affected, people will die.''
Spending for all nonmilitary US foreign activities, including foreign aid, is now being scrutinized by key congressional committees. Lawmakers have proposed reducing US economic and development assistance by up to one-third, largely at the expense of Africa, and slashing or eliminating the US contribution to various multilateral agencies, including the UN Development Program and the World Food Program, which contribute heavily to Africa.
The proposed cuts delight many conservatives, who say that US aid has merely dealt with the symptoms and not the cause of African poverty. The real problem, they say, is inefficient economies controlled from the top down. Worse, critics say, US aid has actually hurt the African countries it has been designed to help.
''What foreign aid has done in Africa is abominable,'' says Bryan Johnson, a policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. ''It has perpetuated poverty by keeping people dependent on the international community and subsidizing corrupt governments.''
''Where there is US aid there are significant needs. There are not significant needs because there is US aid,'' rejoins Carol Lancaster, deputy administrator of the US Agency for International Development (AID), which administers US foreign aid.
Ms. Lancaster says US aid has helped to prevent crises by ameliorating the conditions -- including poverty and overpopulation -- that put pressure on resources and farmland and tax the stability of fragile African governments.
AID officials point out that US aid has been concentrated on the dozen countries judged most serious about making the reforms needed to make sustainable development possible. The litmus tests of reform are progress toward democracy and free-market economics.
Such reforms, they say, have been rewarded, as in the case of Ghana, where US aid nearly doubled between 1990 and 1994 after the country held its first democratic elections. Where reform efforts have faltered aid has been reduced or, as in the cases of Zaire and Cameroon, eliminated altogether. ''To suggest that AID is not concerned with economic policies is irresponsible,'' says Lancaster.
US officials also worry that if the US cuts foreign aid to Africa, other national donors will follow suit. ''If we pull out of Africa, we will exacerbate the conditions that led to the Rwandas, the Liberias, and the Somalias: rapid population growth, food shortages, and environmental degradation,'' says Lancaster.
Even if bilateral and multilateral donors give less, critics respond, private groups like Catholic Relief Services and the Red Cross will continue giving generously.
''The argument that cutting off aid will mean that babies will not be immunized and that people will be dying in the streets is completely bogus,'' Mr. Johnson says.
US foreign aid to Africa has been used to increase maize production in Kenya, to set up family planning programs in Zimbabwe, to increase primary school enrollment in Mali, and to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of famine and civil war in Rwanda.
Champions of foreign aid note the irony that now that AID is free to administer assistance without reference to cold-war politics -- that is, with programs devoted to long-term economic growth and to nations that are deserving rather than those, like Zaire, that were strategically important but corrupt -- aid levels are being cut.
But it is precisely because African countries have lost strategic importance that Congress is now turning its back on Africa, various House and Senate sources say.
Both sides in the great aid debate make their case by citing Rwanda, where billions of dollars have been spent coping with the consequences of a violent civil war. The administration says Rwanda illustrates the point that preventive diplomacy is cheaper than crisis management. Critics say Rwanda is a classic example of a country where US aid failed to forestall a major crisis.
Direct US foreign aid to Africa costs each American family about $3 per year.
US officials say that to the extent US aid helps generate economic growth it enlarges the potentially lucrative market for US exports to Africa. Right now, Africans purchase $4.4 billion in US goods and services annually.
Beyond politics and economics there is another consideration that officials say makes US aid to Africa worthwhile. ''If Americans don't care now about the problems of Africa, they may find that they do care later, when they see more starving children on CNN,'' says Lancaster. ''The US government should care because a lot of Americans care; that's always been a factor in our foreign policy.''