Rich Nations Heed Voters And Audit Aid

The world's wealthiest nations are close to agreement on a new strategy for helping the world's poorest.

Instead of focusing on the level of official development aid, this new approach targets specific results and sets deadlines to meet them. It also endorses anticorruption provisions in the spending of aid dollars.

The goal is not just to redirect aid, but to convince voters in the richest countries that their taxes are well spent. The message is simple: Development matters. Aid works. If a contract is crooked, we'll blow the whistle on it.

And voters need convincing that foreign aid matters. Donor nations may seem rich in the eyes of the world's poor, but people from laid-off AT&T employees to public-transport strikers in France don't feel so wealthy. As Western governments trim their budgets, voters are demanding that leaders account for tax dollars spent.

The strategy is to be endorsed next week by the 26-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based in Paris.

The plan aims to cut by one-half the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by the year 2015. More than 1 billion people now live on less than $1 a day.

"In the year 2000, four-fifths of the people in the world will be living in developing countries, most with improving conditions. But the number in absolute poverty and despair will still be growing," according to a report by the OECD Development Assistance Committee, which drafted the new aid proposal.

Other 20-year goals include: universal primary education in all countries, reducing the infant mortality rate by two-thirds, and reversing the loss of environment resources, such as forests and stratospheric ozone. The report also calls for eliminating gender disparity in primary and secondary education by 2005.

The OECD, a "club" for the world's most prosperous nations, reaches decisions on the basis of consensus and monitors compliance through published peer reviews. It has no power to enforce recommendations on member states.

OECD members now give more than $50 billion annually in official development assistance, more than 90 percent of the world's total. But in recent years, many OECD states have cut or plan cuts in their foreign aid budgets, including the United States (23 percent), Canada (30 percent), and Finland (40 percent).

Development officials meeting in Paris last week to prepare these recommendations were clearly aware of a growing voter backlash against foreign aid programs, and they did not hesitate to use old standards of giving to defend their programs.

The US has already slipped behind Japan as the world's No. 1 official aid donor. In OECD figures expected to be released next week, the US may slip behind France, said J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the US Agency for International Development, at a press briefing in Paris last week.

But even the possible shame of taking third place to France, a nation whose population is one-fifth the size of America's, may not be enough to defend aid budgets. Development officials say they need to explain to voters what their development money have bought.

For Mr. Atwood, the case for aid dollars is simply one of "enlightened self-interest." Solving poverty abroad helps develop consumers and new markets for American goods, he says.

According to recent polls, when asked how much of their national budget is spent on foreign aid, most Americans say 15 percent. In fact, it is less than 1 percent.

"Americans think we're the most generous nation in the world, when the US actually provides the least of all OECD countries in terms of the size of its population," says James Michel, who chaired the OECD Development Assistance Committee that prepared these recommendations.

Part of the problem is that aid advocates have done a bad job explaining their case to the public, he adds. "We've mystified the issue. We need to set simple targets and assign dates to them.... The new OECD goals will do this."

Along with a new results-oriented strategy, OECD ministers will also be considering new anti-corruption proposals for bilateral aid procurement, including calls to criminalize foreign bribes.

Bribes inflate the price of contracts, discourage investment, and have increased poor nations' debt by as much as a third, according to aid officials. Until now, only the US and Sweden make it illegal for their nationals to pay bribes abroad.

"This new bribery effort is the most tangible thing that can be done to signal that aid donors are serious about good governance being a key element of development," said David Aaron, US ambassador to the OECD, in an interview. "It allows people on the ground to blow the whistle on a corrupt contract. Aid officials have often known about corruption, but, until now, they have had no basis to do anything about it."

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