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It's time to give U.S. foreign aid to those who need it most.

To say that U.S. foreign aid has always been a scandal does not fix anything, even though it is true. (A parallel scandal is that Americans believe they are globally overgenerous.) U.S. largess to other nations has been a sort of preferential option for the useful dictators (Marcos of the Philippines) or for neobelligerents (Israel and Egypt), whose war-making imperils U.S. interests.

Now (see page 5 story), there appears both the mood and the opportunity for reform, if a Congress accustomed to handing out USAID assistance to constituent customers can be persuaded to go along. And that is some "if." This year, of more than $27 billion in all manner of U.S. foreign assistance, at least $22 billion will be spent on "tied loans" and grants, spent right here in the U.S. on food and equipment.

Twenty-seven billion dollars buys a lot of international influence, but not as much as it did. Time was when Uncle Sam's international clout was expressed by throwing money at a problem and, if that failed, sending in the military. Both of those approaches, for entirely distinct reasons, are less easily used these days.

So, as in other spheres, such as its domestic economic vitality, the United States appears feeble in its ability to respond and to exercise the firm hand inside a benevolent aid glove. The Clinton administration, it seems, wants flexibility and wants aid untied from tied loans and separated from aiding only the predictable few bedfellows. With enormous political ground shifts in Europe (Bosnia) and the Middle East (the new Israel-PLO settlement hopes) there is going to be a crying need for more money than ever before, just to maintain a peace.

And then there are the truly needy, the always poor world. Clinton does not have to look far for immediate action steps. He could have this country begin by paying its U.N. dues. He could channel money through UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Judicious assistance through the World Bank - whose International Monetary Fund demands can strike terror into the hearts of many struggling countries - is important. Even in the World Bank - once an arm of U.S. interests - U.S. influence has waned along with its contributions spurts.

So, what do we truly want? International development for the worst off.

The U.S. Catholic bishops in June said that "in our view, the supreme and uncontested goal of U.S. foreign aid ought to be, within the limits of our national capacities and in coordination with other donors, to help the poor people escape the misery in which they find themselves." They called on a superpower United States to devise a North-South "solidarity strategy."

In their U.S. Catholic Conference International Policy Committee statement, the bishops welcomed the overall decline in U.S. military assistance, pressed Congress for programs for "authentic development," particularly sub-Saharan, through UNICEF, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the International Fund for Women, and for increased emergency aid, particularly for refugees.

But will Congress budge and is there the money? The congressional vested foreign aid interests are formidable - the lobbyists long in the tooth.

A peace settlement involving Israel and the PLO could release some of the billions going to Israel and Egypt. Israel could make many new friends in the United States by voluntarily renouncing some of that aid.

Even so, it will take billions of dollars in reconstruction for any Palestinian state in order to bring it up economically, educationally and socially to the point that a peace based on relative equality is possible.

And then there's Bosnia. In the long term, the cost of reconstructing whatever eventually comes out of war, genocide, fatigue, bad partitions and a de facto "Palestine in Europe," will be enormous.

In the short term, this winter promises grim news and more death.

Flexibility in foreign aid is vital for short-term assistance; longer-term attempted fixes need not rely on the United States alone. Other nations - Japan, for one, and the European nations - have serious political and moral stakes in these issues, too.

Yet here at home, it is not just a balky Congress that wants to sit on its foreign aid hands. The American public wants to not merely keep its wallets and pocketbooks closed, but to pull back the money being spent.

To the extent that much of that money has been squandered, spent propping up the wrong people, and frittered away on high salaries for administrative personnel, the American people are right to be anti-foreign aid. But to the extent that Americans want to withdraw from helping the world in need, Americans are wrong.

And selling them on that will be as big a job as selling it to Congress.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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