Foreign Aid for Our Time


In an editorial in yesterday's editions, the foreign aid appropriation for the 1993 fiscal year was stated incorrectly. It was $14.7 billion.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It is time to rewrite the basic foreign aid law of this country. Aid is doled out under a 1961 authorization law reflecting Cold War values and amended with a confusing array of targets and prohibitions, largely obsolete. But that is really a fiction. Foreign aid is actually appropriated without much reference to authorization. The law has not been touched since 1985.

The Clinton administration, which is trying to streamline the Agency for International Development (AID) through executive action, has drafted a foreign aid authorization for the '90s, with the pompous but informative heading, "Peace, Prosperity and Democracy Act of 1994." Something like it would bring the stated purpose into line with real purpose, junk outmoded encrustations and go for more efficient dispensing. It would also show that Congress is capable of legislating.

The bill, with apparent lukewarm support from a distracted administration, is stalled in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind., and the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on international economic policy, chaired by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md. What's needed is for Senator Sarbanes to mark it up, rewrite it where needed and send it on to the full committee and floor, before summer recess, the election and other more urgent matters intervene.

There are some pretty good arguments for the bill, which is not a spending bill, and none against it. Except that some congressmen don't want their fingerprints on anything "foreign" or "aid" in an election year.

What a lot of Americans who oppose generosity fail to realize is that they won the argument. Less than 1 percent of the U.S. budget -- $1.47 billion -- is foreign aid. Almost half of that is military. Almost all is spent on U.S. goods and services. The U.S. ranks 19th of 20 industrialized nations in percentage of gross national product that goes to development assistance.

There will always be a tug-of-war over foreign aid as a discretionary foreign policy tool (which administrations want) or targeted to pre-selected beneficiaries with American constituencies (which Congress demands) or to promote sustainable development in the poorest countries (which nongovernmental agencies favor). This tension is inbuilt, and no new law will end it.

But it does make sense to operate under a law tailored to the era of history in which we live. That is not the case now. Mr. Sarbanes can probably make it happen, if he attaches sufficient importance to it.

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