Congress set to increase foreign aid by $2 billion

Development assistance is targeted at AIDS

Africa main beneficiary

December 07, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- With Congress set to increase foreign development aid to the world's poorest nations by nearly $2 billion, President Bush is overseeing the biggest increase in development assistance since 1962 -- the year after President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress in South America.

With most of that money aimed at combating HIV/AIDS and creating a new development program, Africa would be the main beneficiary of this latest expansion in foreign aid.

In a turnaround that caught even Democrats by surprise, Republican lawmakers agreed to nearly double the amount of aid money going to Africa. The expansion appeals to such domestic constituents as the Christian right and to foreign allies who have complained for years that the United States has been far too stingy with its foreign aid budget.

"This is a very big moment for HIV/AIDS and foreign aid," said Stephen Morrison, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a State Department official under President Bill Clinton.

"No one would have predicted that the United States would be putting out this money for AIDS and foreign development," he said.

Under Kennedy, foreign aid for the poorest countries jumped by $4 billion, to $12.5 billion in 1962. This year Congress will add $2 billion, bringing the budget to $8.6 billion, according to figures from the Congressional Research Service, making it the largest increase in developmental and civilian foreign aid programs in four decades.

The impetus behind Bush's new foreign aid programs has been the fear of global terrorism after the Sept. 11 attacks and the looming shadow of the AIDS pandemic.

In his 2002 National Security Strategy, Bush warned against allowing Africa to become impoverished and a home to terrorists.

With strong urgings from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Irish rock star Bono, Bush used his State of the Union address this year to announce an increase in financing for fighting HIV/AIDS by $15 billion over the next five years.

At a conference last year in Monterrey, Mexico, he promised to increase America's foreign aid budget by 15 percent a year -- or $5 billion over three years, the first real expansion in more than a decade.

But Republican lawmakers had to be convinced that new aid money would not be misspent by corrupt foreign governments.

So the administration sidestepped the normal route of giving the money to the U.S. Agency for International Development and instead created a new program called the Millennium Challenge Account, which requires poor nations to meet criteria of good government to receive aid.

Joshua Bolten, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the president's former deputy chief of staff, helped develop the new aid strategy.

Bolten said the president was willing to put $10 billion over three years into a new development program because of this "sea change in how foreign aid is targeted."

"Money will now be given to countries that have shown a willingness to establish an environment where foreign aid will be most effective," Bolten said in an interview last week.

Patrick Cronin, a former assistant administrator at the Agency for International Development who helped create the new programs, said this approach was necessary.

"This really was like Nixon going to China because Republicans have always been the most skeptical about foreign aid," Cronin said.

But experts worry that adding yet another new agency to the number of groups giving out federal money overseas could create confusion and inefficiency.

Lael Brainard, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a member of the National Economic Council under Clinton, said it could also undermine established agencies such as AID.

"This is a terrible blow to USAID, a vote of no confidence in how they are giving out aid," Brainard said.

Bono, who lent his name and reputation to the White House to promote these changes, had grumbled in September that the administration and Congress were slow at handing out the money Bush promised.

But now that Congress has agreed on $1 billion for the new aid program and $2.4 billion for AIDS, he came to Washington last week to praise the Republican-led Congress and Bush for keeping their word to nearly double the amount of aid flowing to Africa.

"This is a real extraordinary year in the history of development assistance," the rock star said at a meeting of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington. "This is the first time I can say a firetruck has arrived on the scene to fight the forest fire of AIDS."

Final congressional approval for the spending measures could come as early as this week. However, it is unclear whether the Senate will vote on any legislation until next month.

With accountability being the most prominent feature of his new aid programs, according to a senior administration official, the president called in prominent lawmakers for help in convincing Congress that foreign aid would not be lost to corruption or incompetence and would bring measurable results.

But it has taken the administration 20 months to draw up the outline for this new development agency. Even if the money were approved next week, the administration has yet to set up the Millennium Challenge Corp. to run the programs.

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