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By William Fisher

Foreign affairs experts agree that the Bush Administration is quietly using the Chinese water-torture method to slowly engineer the death of America’s traditional system for delivering foreign aid – and some of them think it’s not such a bad idea.

They point to the creation of the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) and the U.S. Global AIDS initiative outside the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where such programs would normally be located. And, as further evidence of a shift away from USAID’s traditional international development mandate, they cite the creation of a new democracy promotion apparatus within the State Department and the appointment of the current AIDS coordinator -- who has no development experience – as the new USAID administrator.

The MCA was created in 2004 to provide assistance countries that rule justly, invest in their people, and encourage economic freedom. It has been criticized for the slow pace of its process for approving country applications.

A retired senior USAID official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS, “This is simply another iteration of the longstanding power struggle between USAID and the State Department, which wants to use development money and leverage to further President Bush’s political agenda, and make democracy promotion and the war on terrorism the centerpiece of America’s foreign aid efforts.”

But the comment of another retired diplomat echoes the sentiments of a number of other foreign aid experts interviewed by IPS. Ludwig Rudel, who spent more than 25 years with USAID, said, “My take on USAID is that it really makes no difference what is being proposed -- except for humanitarian assistance and emergency relief the agency has lost its effectiveness anyway”.

He added, “The bulk of USAID money is used for political purposes, such as in Israel, Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan in the Middle East, and Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia for the drug war. During the Marshall Plan days and for about ten years after, the USAID program had a clear development focus. Now, the political types have full control of the funding and development work occasionally is a serendipitous by-product. So what difference does it make if AID gets absorbed into State?”

Efforts to downgrade USAID are not new. Until 1999, the agency reported directly to the president. During the administration of President Bill Clinton, USAID was ordered to report to the Secretary of State. Periodically there have also been efforts in Congress to totally absorb the aid agency into the State Department.

USAID works in more than 100 countries with a 14-billion-dollar annual budget. Its portfolio is massive, ranging from anti-poverty programs to education to health to private sector development and export promotion to policy reform to disaster and humanitarian relief.

The State Department now says that U.S. money should be used to empower developing countries to strengthen security, consolidate democracy and increase trade.

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, outlining a plan she called “Transformational Diplomacy” last week, also said that Washington should further link its aid to defeat terrorist threats. She invoked the attacks of 9/11 and noted that the terrorists used the previously failed state of Afghanistan to launch their attacks.

"In the final analysis, we must now use our foreign assistance to help prevent future Afghanistans -- and to make America and the world safer," she said.

She named terrorism, weapons proliferation, diseases, and trafficking in persons and drugs as global threats that require the U.S. to develop new diplomatic strategies. She said that without the new changes, U.S. foreign assistance may be ineffective.

"The current structure of America's foreign assistance risks incoherent policies and ineffective programs and perhaps even wasted resources,” Rice warned.

But some outside the government have warned that Rice’s proposals could result in a greater politicization of foreign assistance. “We’re concerned that the same priority won’t be given to long-term development as resources are siphoned to support shorter-term diplomatic or military objectives,” said Jim Bishop, a senior officer of InterAction, the largest coalition of non-governmental U.S. aid groups.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)
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