Reining In Foreign Aid

Assistance programs should be less altruistic, more true to policy concerns

With the reorganization of the foreign affairs agencies underway, now is the time to rethink our foreign assistance priorities.

Recent studies show that most Americans do not support providing assistance to foreign countries without it being linked to some concrete goals. While there is still a willingness to provide humanitarian assistance, gone are the days when the American public supported development for development's sake.

Secretary of State Madelaine Albright has said the State Department would work with the Agency for International Development (AID) to assure close coordination between development assistance and foreign policy goals.

There is a fundamental problem with this statement: It assumes that we should have development assistance goals which are separate from our foreign policy goals. We shouldn't. Hans Morgenthau noted in a lecture to the Naval War College in 1957 that there must be a realistic correlation between foreign aid and the national interest.

Dwindling support

AID was created at a time when America was flush with 1960s enthusiasm to help other nations. At that time, we could afford to spend American dollars to help other nations overcome their difficulties. This is no longer true - or at least there is not support for it among Americans. In the Pew Research Center's recent survey on "America's Place in the World," traditional foreign assistance goals such as improving the standard of living in developing nations, and promoting/defending human rights in other countries were ranked by the public in the bottom third of US foreign policy priorities.

Despite these findings, AID's blueprint for post-cold war assistance is based on a goal of "sustainable development," which includes these goals: promoting economic growth, stabilizing the global population, protecting the environment, and advancing democracy. Laudatory, but not supported by the American public as appropriate goals for US foreign policy, especially when pitted against domestic programs. Even recognizing that most Americans vastly overestimate how much money is actually spent on foreign assistance - the entire Foreign Operations Appropriation for 1997 was less than one percent of the federal budget - the concern of the population regarding this use of foreign policy funds is still valid.

This means that decisions on assistance programs in each region and country need to be made by the appropriate State Department bureaus and the relevant embassies. In embassies around the world, the AID mission often develops its country assistance strategy without the input of other sections of the embassy.

In many cases, the embassy sections responsible for formulating our policy toward that country are asked to provide comments on the draft plan only after it is done, thus effectively eliminating any real role for those officials in determining assistance priorities for that country. In Washington, the State Department officials who are responsible for setting policy toward a country and/or region are rarely brought into the decision-making process as AID develops its programs. Part of this can be blamed on the fact that many State Department officers would prefer not to have anything to do with assistance. This apathy on behalf of the State Department and AID's determination to make assistance decisions alone must stop if foreign assistance is to support our foreign policy priorities.

Shifting policy goals

The Bush administration tried to remedy this problem with the establishment within the State Department of the coordinator's office for assistance to Central Europe and, later, the former Soviet Union. In these regions, US assistance programs have been more closely linked to our foreign policy goals of strengthening nascent democracies and promoting the development of market economies. Even so, AID has succeeded in pushing through some of its more traditional fare in these regions as well. As the administration proceeds with the reorganization of foreign affairs agencies, it needs to decide whether it wants to provide development assistance for development's sake or whether hard-earned tax dollars should be used only to respond to humanitarian crises and support foreign policy priorities. Most Americans would favor the latter. The administration should not lose this opportunity to streamline foreign assistance and make it into what it should be: a tool for pursuing foreign policy goals. And the best way to do this is to integrate AID more fully into the State Department, not to let it continue as a separate agency with a separate agenda.

* Richard L. Armitage is the President of Armitage Associates. He has served as a senior official in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton Administrations.

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