The Magazine

Down the Rat Hole

May 27, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 36 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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Brian Atwood announced the shocking news himself: According to preliminary figures, the United States appeared to have fallen to third place among aid- giving governments in terms of total outlays of "official development assistance." Atwood is administrator of the Agency for International Development and a Clinton appointee, and it was his bitter duty to inform the world that in 1995 America's total expenditures on non-military aid programs were not only lower than Japan's, but a bit smaller than France's as well.


"Now, think about that," Atwood intoned at a special press conference (in Paris) on May 7. "I mean, France is a country of [only] 60 million people . . . Our economy is five and a half times the size of France's, and yet, in gross terms and absolute terms, they're the number two donor."


Atwood's remarks are indeed cause for thought -- although not perhaps the thoughts he intended. For in highlighting the stagnation and decline in American fiscal commitments for foreign aid, he ineluctably drew attention to the most obvious reason for the current program's budgetary woes; namely, its almost total lack of public support.


America's foreing aid program is held in extraordinarily low esteem by the people who pay for it. The program is wildly -- and if anything, increasingly -- unpopular with the average citizen; only the most artfully constructed pollster's questions can elicit public approval for it. Perhaps surprisingly; it does not fare that much better indise the Beltway. Within Congress, a broad bipartisan coalition of skeptics views the current foreing aid program with ]sentiments ranging form suspicion to disgust. Even within that safe haven for progressive cuases known as the Clinton administration, pragmatic officals now discuss their country's foreing aid operations with a thinley veiled contempt.


Why should this be? Why should the lack of confidence in the government's foreing aid efforts be so pervasive and run so deep? When pressed, AID's defenders invariably explain that the answeres to these questions are really very complicated. Those in search of a simple answer, however, might begin by examining Atwood's own words in Paris.


His rueful comparison of the American and French programs implicitly posits that the volume of money transferred to recipient Third World governments is the measure of success in foreign aid policy: The bigger the transfer, the better the program. By such reasoning, it is redundant to inquire about the actual results of aid project spending in a recipinet economy -- and the amount of money spent is the result!


This mindset is by no means peculiar to the current Aid administrator. It is deeply entrenched within the culture of the entire global "development community" today. Development Co-operation, the annual report issued on behalf of 21 Western aid-giving governments, offers only three indicators of aid "performance" by donor countries; the total amount of aid given, the share of aid in the contributing country's GNP, and the trend in aid spending as against previous years.


To anyone not specially trained to see steady Western transfer payment to Third World states as proof in itself that aid is "working," howver, the recrod of "development assistance" policies reads like an extended case study on systemic failure -- and has for at least a generation.


To be a bit simplistic: If development assistance efforts were actually working, we would expect the recipients to develop. If receipient countries were actually developing, at some point they would no longer need or qualify for aid: They would "graduate," as one says in aid-speak.


Over the quarter century between 1970 and 1995, as it happens, there were virtually no "graduates" from America's overall aid program. Instead, the initially lengthy roster of recipients has been lengthened still further, with the sudden emergence of a host of new aid-seeking entities following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.


Although AID has finally unveiled a plan for shutting down a number of its Third World missions in the years to come, this initiative in practice merely shifts a financial and administrative burden to regional AID offices, or to American-funded multilateral aid offices -- or to the aid offices of other governments. Eliciting eventual economic self-reliance in recipient countries was not the motivating intent behind this vaunted reorganization: As Atwood's own speeches and testimony have made clear, the main objective of the exercise is to protect existing programs against further congressional cuts.