Foreign Aid and All That

September 21, 1993

Raw meat for the super-patriots on Capitol Hill is the annual request for U.S. contributions to foreign aid programs, international lending agencies and the United Nations. That's when they wave the flag, worry about a loss of sovereignty, find crazy projects going on in far-off places, worry about high living in the U.N. high rise on the East River, chafe at low-interest loans for the very poor and hunt for easy targets to cut the budget deficit.

This year the Clinton administration is responding with some deft tactics that secured passage of a $14.6 billion appropriation in the House and may avoid too tough a struggle in the Senate. No one in Washington is more vociferous in attacking the U.S. Agency for International Development than the new AID director, J. Brian Attwood, who is about to announce sweeping reforms of his agency. No one has been more direct in criticism of U.N. "waste, fraud and abuse" than Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

This is more than tough love. It is an attempt to establish credibility, to convince Congress that requests for scarce dollars in a very tight budgetary environment are coming from officials intent on seeing to it that these dollars are spent prudently and honestly. Probably the strategy will work -- this year. But by next year, Mr. Attwood will be in peril if he lacks a definite plan for reforming his agency; and Ms. Albright will be under pressure to show that the U.N. is getting its house in order.

As in any large bureaucracy, private or public, these agencies have plenty of problems. But this is nothing new. What is new is the high-profile importance of the United Nations in peacekeeping operations and foreign aid's low priority among lawmakers preoccupied by domestic doldrums.

There are some perverse factors at work. While the collapse of the Soviet Union has opened opportunities for good works by rich nations in very poor countries, the old incentive for competing with the evil empire is gone. And while the U.N. is taking on tasks its founding fathers envisaged and then forgot, its efforts to command and control multilateral forces (including American troops) arouses dark fears of U.S. sovereignty dribbling away. While Russian aid is of concern, Middle East reconciliation has made big appropriations for Egypt and Israel almost impregnable.

The best way to deal with these issues is through reform -- concrete reform -- of foreign aid programs and far better administrative practices at the United Nations.

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