Why So Stingy on Foreign Aid?
Washington Post- Tuesday, June 27, 2000
By Sebastian Mallaby
Rep. Sonny Callahan is sitting in the opulence of the House speaker's offices, trying to explain why the subcommittee he's in
charge of keeps cutting assistance to poor countries. He is affable, mostly, and this is a credit to him; he's addressing a member
of an editorial board that recently likened the foes of aid to ostriches. Still, most of what he's saying makes the decline of the aid budget all the more perplexing.
The simple explanation for decline is that Callahan, like many House Republicans, doesn't like aid and is delighted to cut it.
When he took over the chairmanship of the foreign operations subcommittee five years ago, he had never voted for a single aid
bill. He had been abroad just once on congressional business, and then only because President Bush had asked him to visit the
Paris air show. The Mobile Register, the leading paper in his Alabama district, saluted him enthusiastically whenever he
denounced foreign handouts. As recently as last October he complained that President Clinton dished out taxpayers' money
"every time somebody walks in the White House with a turban."
But these days Callahan sounds different, so the simple explanation no longer works. "I think we need to spend more money on foreign aid, to promote democracy and immunize children," Callahan declares; "I think we need more money for HIV and
AIDS." Then he protests that he supports debt relief for struggling countries too. He has even ventured abroad in recent years,
and his trips have included unglamorous spots such as Haiti, Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
Moreover, Callahan's new tune seems to be shared by other members of his party. Late last year, during the endgame of the
budget fight, the Republican line was that aid would drain money from Social Security; it was a choice of "Ghana vs. Grandma," they exclaimed, ridiculously. But you don't hear that so much now. When Callahan's committee met to mark up the aid bill last Tuesday, there were no isolationist outbursts from Republican members.
Of course, the Grandma rhetoric may return as this year's budget battle gets hotter. But, even if you accept the pro-aid talk as
serious and lasting, it begs some obvious questions. For example, how come last Tuesday's markup provided only $13.3 billion in assistance, nearly $2 billion less than the administration requested and $450 million less than was enacted last year? How come there was any cut at all, given that the U.S. international affairs budget has already shrunk to half of what it was in the 1980s, and that the United States ranks last of all industrialized countries in terms of the share of GNP spent on international assistance?
And how come, just to get real specific about two causes that Callahan says he supports, both the battle against AIDS and the
campaign for debt relief are getting much less than what is needed?
Callahan has his answer ready, and it encapsulates the post-Grandma attack on foreign assistance. The problem with AIDS
relief, which he supports wholeheartedly, you see, is that the relief money will be siphoned off by corrupt governments. "You
don't need to give the king of some country money," is how Callahan puts it. Equally, the problem with debt relief is that it
enriches undeserving rulers. "In Uganda we forgave debt, and the day after, the guy buys a Gulfstream," goes Callahan's
You can't quarrel with the details of these complaints. It is true that AIDS relief funds may be stolen if they are not carefully
monitored. It is also true that Uganda, which has been forgiven $1.3 billion of payments to its international creditors, recently
spent an obscene $35 million on a presidential jet.
But the larger truth is that you can't make total corruption-proofing the test of foreign aid. You can't engage in bone-poor
countries that lack laws and independent journalists and elections, and expect American standards of transparency. Some
corruption is inevitable. Unless you accept that, even the programs that do work are going to be shuttered.
Nobody is suggesting that funds for AIDS relief be paid into royal bank accounts. The World Bank, for example, recently
requested that poor countries offer detailed health plans before it would help pay for them. Equally, debt relief is not being
handed out recklessly. Only countries with a track record of responsible economic policy and sound poverty-reduction
strategies qualify. Yoweri Museveni, the jet-purchasing president of Uganda, has chalked up impressive achievements as well
as bad mistakes. He has spoken out loudly about AIDS and so contained its spread; he has boosted the primary school
enrollment from 2.3 million to 6.5 million since 1996; he has pulled more than 2 million of Uganda's 21 million people out of
During the Gingrich years, Republicans decried the failings of federal education and housing programs, and declared that both
the responsible departments should be abolished. They know better than that now, but they are in danger of repeating their
mistake on the issue of foreign assistance. Yes, many aid programs fail and will continue to do so. But you don't give up trying
to educate and house people just because it's hard. And you don't give up on international engagement just because it's as
daunting as it is important.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company