Among the items listed in the State Department's fiscal 1985 budget is a new $110 million joint U.S.-Indo Fund for Cultural, Educational and Scientific Cooperation.
The line item may have been prompted by a genuine interest in improving links with New Delhi. But there was another underlying motive: the U.S. government needs to get rid of some money in a hurry.
It may seem like a paradox that a government with a $179 billion annual budget deficit needs to hunt for ways of disposing of surplus cash. But the extra money is not U.S. dollars -- instead it's Indian and Pakistani rupees, Burmese kyats, Guinese sylis and, a new addition to the list, Polish zlotys.
The money must be spent in those countries because a large-scale conversion of those currencies to U.S. dollars could disrupt the countries' economies. Most of the money the United States holds represents repayments of foreign assistance inaugurated following World War II.
The problem is that in some of the excess-currency countries there isn't a lot that the United States wants to buy. In fact, U.S. Foreign Service officers in Guinea and Burma cannot even use the surplus funds to buy their plane tickets out: those countries, strapped for "hard" currency, require that airline tickets to the United States be purchased in U.S. dollars.
At the end of June, the United States owned more than $359 million in Indian rupees, $112.6 million in Pakistani rupees, $10.99 million in Burmese kyats and $12.819 million in Guinese sylis. Though that may seem like enough to buy the Taj Mahal or improve the Burma Road, State Department officials have had a difficult time finding ways of spending it.
For example, State's foreign currency expert, John Manion, said the U.S.-Indo Fund for Cultural, Educational and Scientific Cooperation will set aside $110 million in rupees, but so far the projects are small enough that they can be supported simply by the interest accumulating on that amount.
The cultural exchange program is the brainchild of Harry G. Barnes Jr., the American ambassador in New Delhi. A board, made up of representatives of both countries, will decide which projects will be funded. Officials hope that by the end of this fiscal year the new fund will be able to distribute enough money to push India off the list of excess-currency countries.
Poland is the most recent addition to the list. The country had been on the list since the 1950s, but dropped off in 1976 when its government began systematically converting zlotys into dollars.
In 1981, however, with the rise of the Solidarity trade union and the subsequent imposition of martial law, the conversion stopped; in Manion's words, "they just ran out of money," in this case, dollars. So the pile of zlotys began accumulating again: as of the end of June, the United States owned $127.3 million in zlotys.
The Agriculture Department recently contributed to the pile when it sold the Poles surplus dairy products worth more than $30 million, Manion said.
Treasury Department officials said some of that Polish currency will be used to build a hospital.
The State and Treasury departments also keep a list of "near-excess" countries. In those countries -- Egypt, Ghana, the Sudan, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Taiwan -- U.S. agencies are instructed to pay for as much as possible in the local currency.
Both "excess-currency" and "near-excess" countries are encouraged as sites for U.S.-sponsored scientific research that officials acknowledge could just as easily be done elsewhere.