The U.S. aid program has been quietly mugged in the first few months of 1980, the worst battering in nearly a decade. Under the banner of fighting inflation, congressional foes of aid are slashing programs in ways likely to have serious consequences for American relations with the Third World.
Two recent events in Congress are especially damaging. First, Congress has been unable to pass the appropriations bill for foreign aid for the current fiscal year, which began in October 1979. For months lack of public pressure on behalf of aid and fear of amendments inspired by events in Iran and Afghanistan kept the bill bottled up in conference.
Because aid's unpopularity places it near the end of the congressional funding line, the compromise bill was no sooner reporter than it was discovered that passing the bill would break the budget ceiling. Higher than anticipated inflation and expenditures left no room for foreign aid. Thus the United States will limp along with last year's aid levels under a continuing resolution, with little flexibility and extra money to meet changing world conditions.
Among the programs most significantly affected are the special aid package for Nicaragua, laboriously put together to demonstrate our good will toward the new government; assistance to Cambodian refugees and humanitarian food assistance to refugees worldwide; disaster assistance, especially to help Caribbean countries recover from Hurricane David; and programs for the Sahel and southern Africa. It is as if Congress skipped over the events of 1979.
The second blow was the House action in cutting sharply ("gutting," one member said) authorization levels over several years for the Inter American Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank. These cuts, 40 percent in one case and 60 percent in the other, would require the United States to renegotiate its share with all other donors. Interestingly, the real budgetary impact of these cuts is minimal, since the great bulk of the authorization was for callable capital, in effect a guarantee from the U.S. government for which appropriations are not required.
The lack of Congress' concern for the consequences of its actions is disturbing. The inability to pass the appropriations bill occurred without congressional debate; it was presented as a great victory in demonstrating that the budget process was working properly. On the contrary, it highlights the weakness of that process. The discipline to force action within the budget timetable or to require revision of faulty projections is lacking. Supplemental appropriations, no matter how grave the need, are almost impossible under such a system. Unfortunately, world crises are not planned a year in advance.
An examination of the House debate on the regional banks reveals the extent to which the extreme right wing has captured the terms of the debate. The fact that the ranking Republicans from the relevant subcommittee and committee were sponsors of the bill, and had been consulted by the administration during the negotiations, seems to have had no impact. Does congressional consultation become administration abdication under these circumstances? The concept of burden sharing has lost a common meaning. Future negotiators are left without guideposts.
The worst may be yet to come. The administration has announced significant, but unspecified cuts in the 1981 budget. Even if aid is nicked lightly, congressional knives are being sharpened to finish the job. The end result is likely to be reduction in or elimination of development programs in countries of little present political sugnificance. Security concerns will keep aid flowing to the Middle East and its periphery, but the pie will shrink for countries and programs whose only justification is humanitarian. Philosophically, the United States will remain committed to a basic human-needs approach to development, but that approach could look increasingly hollow as aid becomes more obviously the handmaiden of security interests.
The United States is rushing headlong into greater military spending, and concomitantly less development spending, with virtually no debate. Apart from serious questions about the wisdom of reliance on military means to deal with Third World crises, there are three compelling reasons for maintaining aid levels.
First, pure economic self-interest requires the maintenance of satisfactory growth rates in developing countries (our fastest growing markets) if they are to continue to absorb American exports, invest in mineral and energy development and produce an assortment of consumer goods whose low prices help Americans battle inflation at home.
Second, stalemate now characterizes North-South economic relations, and aid is one of the few carrots the United States has to offer. It is also a barometer measuring, although imperfectly, the state of U.S. relations with the Third World. Even vastly increased military spending cannot protect American interests in a world that views the United States as fundamentally hostile to Third World economic concerns.
Third, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that human lives and welfare are at stake. Africa is losing the race between food and population; massive starvation has occurred in Cambodia. Can we turn our backs on these events, and still proclaim our interest in a peaceful world? Aid may not be the hottest issue in a presidential election year, but it is a crucial test for America's role in the world of the 1980s. So far, we are failing badly.