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Overdue: reform of U.S. foreign aid policy so it doesn't play favorites.

WASHINGTON - U.S. foreign aid policy is overdue for reform The Clinton White House, many in Congress and even the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, J. Brian Atwood, agree on that.

Now the topic has gained new momentum here following a Washington Post report of a Clinton interagency study that recommends that aid might in future be linked to categories rather than earmarked for specific countries, as at present. Currently, for example, by some measures Egypt and Israel receive around 50 percent of all foreign aid.

Under the study's recommendations, stated the Post, countries would instead bid competitively within categories that might include "transition from communism" or "nonproliferation and arms control."

Reaction ranges from the optimistic to the skeptical. "Our two concerns," said Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, of the U.S. bishops International Justice and Peace Office, would be that "sufficient funds be available for reconciliation and reconstruction, such as for Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Angola, places where reconstruction has to take place. There is at least potential for that (in a thematic approach).

"And second," he said, "is the worry that the poorest nations and grassroots development might get left out."

On this second point, the Washington Office on Africa's William Minter said, "If it simply comes down to who is better at submitting their grant applications in the proper form, then African countries may become even more marginalized than at present."

There is a distance, too, said Minter, between what is legislated and what is institutionalized. In development funding for Africa, for example, he said, that although the legislation is committed to "grassroots development, operationalizing that is very difficult."

Quixote Center's Fr. William Callahan said that the foreign aid debate in the "solidarity community" has two sides. One, that USAID is unwieldy, doesn't get anything done, and therefore needs to be made more responsive to the needs of the poor.

"Then on the other side," he continued, "are a few folks like myself who say that USAID is so much an instrument of U.S. foreign policy that it cannot be anything but that and still get appropriations." Plus, he said, the fact that Congress ensures that 75-80 percent of all agency money is spent in the United States, "is in chronic conflict with poor people's needs to develop their own markets and their ability to buy at the lowest price."

Can any administration resist playing favorites with foreign aid, even after revisions? Not if the record of earlier US. administrations is a guide.

"What we found in the past," said Curt Goering, acting executive director of New York-based Amnesty International USA, "is not very consistent standards. The human rights provisions would be written in pretty strongly for one country and almost negligible on another."

The Washington Office on Latin America's Peter Sollis said that in addition to the organizational problems of implementing a thematic approach, there is the fact that U.S. overseas influence is directly linked to how much money it has to spend.

"The smaller the AID budget," he said, "the smaller the influence. And," said Sollis, "the U.S. is spending only 0.2 percent of its (gross national product) now, and is not likely to do any better."
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Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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