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What We Got For What We Gave
The American Experience With Foreign Aid
April/May 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 3
Although advanced industrial countries like Japan were making excellent progress in controlling population, the record in the poorest countries was discouraging. Population projections indicated that famine was almost inevitable. With each increase in available food, the population increased more. The problem was in large measure the result of great achievements in health-the near eradication of smallpox and other diseases, the reduction of infant mortality through improved sanitation, and a general increase in life spans. The doctor and agricultural scientist seemed too often to be working against each other.
Vietnam remained the most damaging event. Three successive PresidentsKennedy, Johnson, Nixon-proclaimed that Vietnam was the great test of America’s determination and ability to prevail. Billions in economic and more billions in military aid were poured into that Southeast Asian country with tragic results. The Presidents made the mistake of ignoring the special circumstances in Vietnam which made success on American terms impossible. The critics made a similar mistake-generalizing that failure in Vietnam forecast failure everywhere.
In 1968 Congress cut the administration’s foreign aid request by 40 per cent and appropriated the smallest amount since 1941. Three years later Congress actually voted down the foreign aid bill and did not finally approve it until the fiscal year was almost over. No longer could a foreign aid program be taken for granted, like Social Security.
Congressional disillusionment was forcibly expressed by Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, in a well-publicized 1971 speech entitled “Farewell to Foreign Aid: A Liberal Takes Leave”: “The experience of twenty years of aid shows that we can neither bring about fundamental reform in tradition-encrusted societies nor prevent revolution in those countries where the tide of change runs deep and strong; all we can really do is to service the status quo in countries where it is not strongly challenged anyhow.” And Senator John L. McClellan, Democrat of Arkansas, lamented that for too long the United States “has attempted to export democracy abroad to unwilling and unready recipients, while neglecting the obvious needs of our people and democratic institutions at home. … Foreign aid … is a flop and we should stop it.”
Even professionals who had devoted their lives to eradicating disease, increasing food production, and attempting to improve the general lot of mankind were on occasion overcome with pessimism. One couple with long experience in Central America conducted an extensive “audit” of American aid. On the basis of intimate familiarity and on-the-spot inspection, they concluded in 1973 that “development professionals do not know how to carry out an effective economic development program, either a big one or a small one. No one knows how —not the U.S. government, not the Rockefeller Foundation, not the international banks and agencies, not the missionaries.” They quoted with sad approval the sermon of a Washington, D.C., minister. “We have now squarely to face this paradox. … We have increased human hunger by feeding the hungry. We have increased human suffering by healing the sick. We have increased human want by giving to the needy. It is almost impossible for us to face the fact that this is so. The truth comes as a shocking discovery for we have all been brought up in the Christian tradition in which caring for the least of our brethren has been counted the highest virtue.”
The mood in Congress improved with the winding down of American involvement in Vietnam, but it did not improve very much. Presidents Nixon and Ford did institute two shifts in emphasis which met with general approval. New development projects were to emphasize direct assistance to the small farmer, rather than large, expensive undertakings which benefited the wealthy and piled up a burden of debt in the recipient country. Also, more American assistance was to be channeled through the World Bank and United Nations agencies. The Carter administration has moved in both these new directions. In 1978, for the first time, more American economic assistance will be distributed through international organizations than on a direct bilateral basis.
The end of the Vietnam War also saw a sharp reduction in American military assistance in general, and a geographical shift to the Middle East, where the United States supported both Israel and the Arab states in an effort to provide both sides with a feeling of security and a willingness to reach a settlement. Israel had been a recipient of some aid from the American government since 1948 as well as aid from private American citizens. For 1978, $1.7 billion of the $3.2 billion sought by the administration for military aid is earmarked for Israel.