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What We Got For What We Gave
The American Experience With Foreign Aid
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
The Alliance has often been called a failure. Programs in health and education have made good progress toward their goals-but there has been little improvement, relative to population, in agriculture, housing, or general economic growth. Income has not been significantly redistributed, and there is less rather than more political democracy in Latin America than when the Alliance was proclaimed. Congress has consistently reduced the amount asked by Presidents for the Alliance, causing the contribution by the United States in grants and loans to remain below 10 per cent of total funds spent on Alliance activities. Latin American nations themselves contribute between 85 and 90 per cent. The remainder comes from the foreign aid programs of other industrial countries-Canada, for example-and from international agencies.
The Kennedy years were like a brief second honeymoon. Congress reduced the administration’s annual foreign aid requests by smaller amounts than at any time since the Truman years. The President and leading senators were in close agreement. The emphasis on development had long been a favorite theme of Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota was one of the fathers of the Peace Corps idea. Foreign policy intellectuals from the universities were not only in accord with the President; a good many of them were in the government.
Morale in AID was high as ambitious projects were launched throughout the tropical world: dams built, irrigation pipes laid down, sewer systems installed, hospitals and clinics established, tractors and other machinery purchased, and everywhere roads, roads, and more roads. In the 1950’s the United States had considered it inappropriate to provide aid for population control. But now no American leader could ignore the fact that every increase in food production was worse than useless if accompanied by a greater increase in population. Accordingly, assistance in birth control was extended (ironically, under the first Roman Catholic President).
And it all seemed to be working. The world’s weather was good, with rainfall abundant or adequate in tropical areas. Agricultural scientists were introducing new, highly productive strains of wheat and other grains. The use of fertilizer was expanding. Food production was going up. Publicists began to write ecstatically of the “Green Revolution” in Asia. Victory over world hunger, sustained economic growth, and political triumph over the instability caused by misery all seemed possible.
But the bright dawn of the early 1960’s was followed by a decade of disaster. In the United States, President Kennedy was assassinated, and then Martin Luther King and then Robert Kennedy. American poverty, crime, and racial injustice were rediscovered. Terrible riots devastated American cities. Americans began to ask why their government should spend billions abroad when there were so many unsolved problems at home.
There was no easy answer to this question. By the mid-1960’s American foreign policy and the Vietnam War had become synonymous. If Vietnam was the result of two decades of American effort to create a peaceful, stable world, then perhaps all this effort had been mistaken. Gradually, the same people who had been most devoted to the concept of foreign aid, such as Senator Fulbright, had second thoughts.
The Vietnam War also produced a generation of radical critics of foreign policy in general and of foreign aid in particular. They saw the humanitarian arguments for aid as a flimsy cover for a sinister imperialistic intent to dominate the Third World and suppress the revolutionary spirit which sought to bring real freedom. The critics pointed out that Food for Peace often meant financing for military purposes. They dug hard to uncover the clandestine operations and secret wars waged by the CIA. They publicized the extensive training provided by AID for foreign police officers, training for the ultimate purpose of suppressing political protest.
At the same time, evidence began to accumulate that science and technology could not solve all problems. Development assistance designed to raise a country’s standard of living had too often created a new class of the wealthy or made the rich richer, while in some cases even weakening the position of the poor. Irrigation dams, broad highways, heavy agricultural machinery, and tons of fertilizer were good for big farmers, for those with land and capital. But they often harmed rather than helped the peasant with a tiny farm. At worst the peasant’s farm was absorbed by the large landowners, the big operators. And then there were changes in the weather, years of devastating drought that wiped out the gains of the Green Revolution.