Los Angeles Times
5 February 2002

Investments in Peace

Polls show Americans believe that about 15% of the federal budget goes for foreign aid. The actual number is less than 1%, a dismal figure that would remain about the same under President Bush's $2.1-trillion budget for next year.

There are numerous competing priorities for the taxpayer's money. Last September's terror means that more money must be spent on defense and homeland security. But spending more on foreign aid would increase this country's security by helping nations lift themselves out of the poverty that breeds despair and, in some cases, dangerous antipathy toward economically successful nations. Sen. Jesse Helms, who thankfully is retiring, some years ago denounced sending too much money "down foreign rat holes." But the eradication of smallpox wasn't a rat hole. The U.S. Agency for International Development helped U.N. agencies and health workers in other countries purchase and distribute smallpox vaccine. It persuaded nurses in villages to educate women to inoculate their children against smallpox and provided cards to show that the shots had been given. Today the United States is also spending money on simple but effective treatments to save infants in the Third World from dying of diarrhea. Other funds pay for tablets that villagers can drop in a well so they can drink the water without becoming sick. Yes, strings must be attached to money, and vigilance is required to ensure it pays for health or a schoolhouse and not another Rolls-Royce for the local potentate. But it can be done. It must be done.

The United States once did spend 15% of its budget on foreign aid. That was in the years after World War II, and the money, especially Marshall Plan money, helped rebuild all of Western Europe, a great achievement that strengthened democracies and averted wars.

Today HIV and AIDS threaten to kill so much of the educated class in Africa that many nations may be forced onto the road to collapse. The Bush administration last year put $300 million into the Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. This year's figure is $200 million, a step in the wrong direction.

There is a strong argument to be made that if the United States had not turned its back on Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops there it could have helped stop the downward spiral and constant battling of warlords that cleared the path for the dreaded Taliban. More foreign aid could have built schools, grown crops and improved health enough to steer the nation away from decades of disaster.

Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), chairman of the House committee that handles foreign aid, has said that the United States can build a school in Pakistan for $60,000 and operate it for $10,000. That would give parents an alternative to those Islamic schools that teach only the Koran and hatred of America. In the Senate, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and several colleagues have been pushing to triple foreign aid. They need to increase the volume of their arguments to the Bush administration and the American people.

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