Faith and Conscience

Monday, November 14, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH has made three important promises on foreign aid. In 2002 he announced plans for a Millennium Challenge Account that would dispense aid to a short list of poor countries that had good policies. The following year, in his State of the Union speech, Mr. Bush announced a new international effort against AIDS. In June of this year, Mr. Bush promised to double U.S. assistance to Africa. Taken together, these pledges are not enough to shift the United States from its position at the bottom of the ranking of donors when measuring aid as a share of gross domestic product. But they do promise a reversal of the decline in U.S. foreign assistance during the 1990s as well as some fresh thinking on how aid should be spent. Unfortunately, the pledges aren't being fully implemented.

The record is best on AIDS. Mr. Bush promised to spend $15 billion over five years and is almost on track. He secured a total of $5.2 billion from Congress in the first two years and seems likely to get nearly all of the $3.2 billion he has requested for this year. The AIDS czar's office initially faced justified uproar over its slowness in approving the use of cheap, generic antiretroviral drugs and less-justified uproar over its insistence that sexual abstinence should play a role in AIDS prevention. But the office is now procuring generics, and its operations are efficiently decentralized (compared with traditional U.S. assistance programs). U.S. officials based in recipient countries choose which AIDS initiatives to support. Much of the money flows through low-cost local organizations rather than expensive U.S.-based contractors.

The Millennium Challenge Account hasn't fared as well. The concept is great: Direct money to a few countries with effective governments, both because these are most likely to spend the money well and because this may motivate other countries to improve their policies. But the administration took two years to secure legislation setting up the program, and its first boss quit after an unsuccessful tenure. As a result, Mr. Bush's pledge that the account would be sending $5 billion a year to poor countries by 2006 will not be realized. The account has made commitments amounting to about $200 million annually for the next five years. Actual disbursements have been infinitesimal. So Congress is set to appropriate just $1.77 billion for the current fiscal year, a third of Mr. Bush's target.

Because the Millennium Challenge Account is behind schedule, Mr. Bush's most recent pledge -- to double aid to Africa by 2010 -- is not on track either. That would involve a $4.3 billion increase over five years; according to the anti-poverty group Bread for the World, Congress is set to deliver an increase this year of about $400 million. "We fight against poverty because faith requires it and conscience demands it," the president declared when he announced the initiative in 2002. He should not forget that message.

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