Last night, at the Organization of American States, about 300 people gathered for the last leg of a glittery celebration because nice things really do come wrapped up in brown paper packages. CARE packages, to be exact.

It was a dinner in honor of the fact that, 35 years ago, small packages appeared in Le Havre, France, filled with sugar, flour, coffee, even cigarettes. The packages are still arriving, not necessarily in Europe, but in many other countries. And these days, they are as likely to contain development plans as chocolate.

"Konrad Adenauer once told me that if it weren't for those packages, he wouldn't have lived to be chancellor [of West Germany]," said Wallace Campbell, the president of CARE. There were lots of stories like that from Europeans in the audience.

The evening began with 15 dinner parties, at embassies that did or still do receive money from CARE -- including the Netherlands, Spain, Nepal, Thailand and Costa Rica.

The idea was to raise a glass to CARE, and raise a little money, too. The evening was expected to net about $40,000, not much when compared with the $30 million in contributions that CARE raised last year, but highly respectable for one night's gathering.

Presidential assistant Elizabeth Dole filled in for her husband the senator (he was tied up with the budget) at the podium. She brought greetings to the CARE benefactors and diplomatic contingent from the president and the first lady and extolled the virtues of CARE.

But she was preaching to the converted, people such as retiree Pierre Purvis, a longtime contributor who'd had a thoroughly enjoyable meal at the Embassy of Nepal.

"I like a group that publishes a report of what they're doing," said Purvis of CARE. "I like to give, but I don't like to give to those groups that publish pictures of starving babies and nothing else. Because then you can bet the money isn't going to get to those starving babies."

Once all of the dignitaries had been introduced, there was a new CARE film, which showed, among other things, a project in Haiti. "It all begins," the film narrator reminded the guests, "with a simple act of kindness."

Then the lights went back on. OAS Ambassador Alejandro Orfila, honorary chairman of the evening, approached the microphone.

"And now," he said with a flourish, "dancing."

So they did.