An innovative assault on rural poverty in member countries of the Organisation of American States is being led by a Cypriot expert who has attracted Israel and Egypt as friendly competitors in providing the technical assistance.
Projects in a dozen countries are benefiting the victims of backward rural conditions that have proved most resistant to international development efforts.
The aid outlay is small." These problems aren't solved by a lot of money," said Stahis Panagides, the Cypriot on loan to the OAS from the World Bank.
What does solve the problems, he said, is a commitment by the host government and the catalyst of two or three experts - such as Israelis now in the field and Egyptians about to be - on a job where they can pass along their own experience. The projects range from facilitating rural credit to establishing new settlements.
Often the long range objective is to train workers in such countries as Haiti and Honduras so they can prepare more costly rural development projects that can be financed by the World Bank or Inter-American Development Bank here.
Panagides' program is gaining attention despite the OAS's lackluster reputation in the technical assistance field. The organization, better known for its sometimes florid political debates, is often criticized for installing most of its experts in Washington instead of in the field.
Panagides, 40, said he has 71 professionals, "and of these, 50 are excellent," with two-thirds of the force permanently in the field.
Israeli, Canadian and now Egyptian specialists have been recruited to complement the permanent staff, with part of the expense being borne by the contributing countries.
Israel cooperation with the OAS dates back to 1967. It will now keep seven experts at projects in Haiti Chile, Peru Panama, Guatemala and Jamaica. About 60 Latin Americans go to Israel each year for two- to eight-month training courses. The Israeli outlay is valued at $300,000 annually.
Thomas F. Carroll, a rural development expert at the Inter-American Bank, singled out Panagides' accomplishment with the Israelis in praising the Cypriots' "pragmatic approach . . . a new wind at the OAS."
But it is the agreement reached with the Egyptians that brings out Panagides' enthusiasm. Whereas the Latins dealing with Israel, the United States or Canada are in a client relationship, he said, "the Egyptians really are struggling with similar problems, even worse problems."
Eleven development officials from Latin nations invited recently to Egypt saw some of their own precepts punctured. Panagides said they visited rural banks that, to their astonishment, usually were installed in a simple farmhouse. In Latin Ameerica, the tendency is to think a bank is not a bank unless it has large air-conditioned lobby.
Negotiations are under way that will bring at least three Egyptian specialists to Latin America for longterm assignment as well as more short-term visits through a two-year $200,000 contribution by Egypt.
Panagides is to meet this fall with representatives of most West European countries, several of which have also expressed interest in cooperating with his efforts. This follows a European tour several months ago by OAS Secretary General Alejandro Orfila.
The increased participation from abroad comes as the United States is seeking to cut back its role as the major source of OAS financing. At the same time, the larger OAS countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, are being encouraged to provide specialists for the less-developed members.
All told, the program is training about 850 rural technicians annually and supporting development projects that, with a total OAS outlay of $3 million yearly, could "mobilize" within the next few years, close to $400-500 million for rural development" said Panagides.