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Like Welfare, Foreign Aid Shouldn't Go on Endlessly

Reform of the welfare program suggests a way to reform foreign aid. Congress set a limit of five years on welfare payments per family. Why should it not set a limit of five years on foreign aid per country?

One of the most frustrating aspects of foreign aid is its seeming immortality. The 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan is being celebrated with well-deserved praise. European recovery is rightly held up as the model of what a foreign-aid program ought to be. It ended ahead of schedule and under budget, the last significant program of its kind to do that.

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After the Marshall Plan came technical assistance, the Point Four of President Truman's 1949 inaugural address. While this was being justified to Congress, its administrators said their success would be measured by how soon they could work themselves out of their jobs. Yet, today, the second and third generation of technical assistance workers are still as far from unemployment as ever.

The foreign-aid bureaucracy, much like the welfare bureaucracy, has acquired a life and momentum of its own. When changing times and circumstances remove one rationale for foreign aid, another is invented. For 40 years, billions of dollars were scattered around the world to counter the Soviet threat. The collapse of the Soviet Union made it difficult to argue that this should be continued.

Foreign aid now is touted as a principal instrument to spread democracy and human rights throughout the world. This is indeed a long-term mission unlikely to be completed in the next millennium. It is well designed to ensure the program's immortality. So is the companion mission of feeding the hungry. How quickly we forget about people working themselves out of their jobs. It's hard to argue against feeding the hungry, but humanitarian assistance should be reserved for natural disasters. Routine food aid year after year only inhibits policies to increase local production.

Yet another rationale has been developed to generate political support for foreign aid in the US: It's good for business - it creates jobs. This is the same argument used against closing expensive military bases, whose usefulness is past. Administration spokesmen bring the point home with local emphasis. Thus, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in a recent commencement address in Colorado, said: "In 1995 our Agency for International Development bought almost $17 million worth of Colorado wheat, beans, and lentils to feed the hungry overseas." This may be good down-to-earth, grass-roots politics, but it's lousy foreign policy.

The inability to end what is supposed to be a temporary program is an appealing reason for not starting foreign aid in countries not currently receiving it. But there are situations where foreign aid clearly is in the US's national interest.

The reconstruction of Western Europe half a century ago was one example. The situation in Eastern Europe today is another. If we can aid the transition from communism to (we hope) democracy, it will be money well spent. When the Senate was debating the Marshall Plan, floor managers of the bill warned their colleagues that it was a gamble that might not work. The same can be said today about Eastern Europe. Now, as then, it is a gamble worth taking.

But not indefinitely. Gamblers who have enough chips left to play another day are those who know when to quit. Five years seems like a reasonable limit, though there is room for argument over the precise number of years.

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The important thing is to fix a deadline and stick to it. Approximately 70 countries are receiving foreign aid this year. Some of them have been for more than 50 years, especially in Latin America where technical assistance started earlier than elsewhere. Other long-term recipients are in the Middle East and South Asia, notably Israel and Egypt, which get more than any other countries. Israel has achieved middle-income status with a gross national product per capita of $14,000. Egypt is still mired in poverty with a GNP per capita of $710. The program ought to be ended in Israel because it has been successful; in Egypt, because there is no sign that it ever will be.

The continuation of welfare over a period of years generated an unhealthy dependency and as much resentment as gratitude. The same is true for foreign aid. A time limit would avoid these disadvantages, and the certain prospect of an approaching end might inspire more effective efforts.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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