Foreign aid recast as tool to stymie terrorism

Looking to fight root causes of attacks, some call for doubling of international aid.

It used to be easy for US government officials to respond to pressure for any increase in foreign aid: Republicans or Democrats, they just said no.

Foreign aid was widely considered wasteful, a way for corrupt foreign officials to line pockets, tax dollars up to no good.

Last month, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill complained about poor countries receiving "trillions of dollars in aid over the years with precious little to show for it." Even under a Democratic administration and eight years of prosperity, foreign aid fell - to where the US spends less on aid as a percentage of national income than any other developed country.

But now some voices - spurred on by a war on terrorism - are singing a new tune. Some aid advocates, as well as some conservatives, and even military officials, want to see the Bush administration at least double international assistance to help meet what they say are some of the root causes of terrorism - poverty, poor health, a lack of educational and development opportunities.

"What we spend on foreign assistance is an integral part of our national security strategy," Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona declared recently at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing.

The proposed international affairs budget for fiscal 2003 is $16.1 billion, of which $3.8 billion is earmarked for areas that development experts consider crucial, including basic education, health care, disaster relief, and democracy promotion.

Not top budget priority

President Bush spoke in his State of the Union address of the need to do more about global poverty and limited educational opportunities. But while his proposed budget would increase "international assistance" spending by about $750 million, critics note that well over half of the increase is for military assistance.

"We agree with the [president's] words of support, but they're not reflected in the fine print of the budget," says Mary McClymont, president of InterAction, a coalition of 160 US-based international-aid organizations.

Like other critics, she says expanding foreign aid would serve the national interest by "enhancing our own state security."

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University, says that by raising foreign aid by just one-tenth of one percent of GNP - a move that would yield about $10 billion - the US would "start having an adequate strategy for fighting terrorism at its roots."

In a December report for a World Health Organization commission, Professor Sachs concludes that a "new global partnership between developed and developing countries" to invest in public health could not only save lives, but "strengthen global security."

Assistance groups are mindful of aid's poor reputation, so they are calling for a doubling of aid over the next five years, coupled with stronger efforts to make programs more effective and efficient. Ms. McClymont says it's also time to point out not just failings, but how effective international assistance has been. According to InterAction, programs have helped cut in half adult illiteracy in developing countries over the last three decades. Early-warning systems helped avert famines last year in Ethiopia, Central America, and Afghanistan.

Deeper philanthropic motives

Some Americans involved in grass-roots international assistance say that if the focus on national security gives foreign aid more urgency, they are for it.

"It resonates with people especially after Sept. 11, it helps persuade the American public that foreign aid is actually good for them, too," says Rye Barcott, a Marine lieutenant who, on his own, established a youth program in Nairobi, Kenya, to promote community sensibilities and harmony - principally between poor Christian and Muslim populations. Still, Mr. Barcott - whose organization, Carolina for Kibera, survives on private funds - says more than just self-interest should be behind US foreign aid.

"Doing this because you think you're getting at the causes of terrorism is fine, but at some point that's insufficient," he says. "I think there is a noble reason for assistance: not that it's a hand out, but an investment in human potential."

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