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How to reform a "rathole" on $10 billion

Republicans used to equate foreign-aid spending with pouring money down a "rathole." With a GOP president in the White House and a world war on terrorism raging, foreign aid is earning a second look, even a commitment to spend more-but with a new promise that it will be spent well

Issue: "The $10 billion gamble," April 6, 2002

Global humanitarianism is the domain of liberals no more. Earlier this month President George W. Bush announced an ambitious plan for overseas development. By 2006, if the president gets his way, U.S. taxpayers will spend $10 billion helping poor people around the world. That figure is twice the amount the United States currently spends each year on food and humanitarian aid.

Mr. Bush calls the boost in aid "a new compact for global development." He said it will be defined by "new accountability for both rich and poor nations alike. Greater contributions from developed nations must be linked to greater responsibility from developing nations."

The president said a global war on poverty is in line with the war on terrorism. "Even as we fight to defeat terror, we must also fight for the values that make life worth living," he said. "This is both the history of our country and it is the calling of our times."

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Mr. Bush also announced this month an expansion of the Peace Corps. He will double the number of Peace Corps volunteers worldwide and reopen what has in many countries become a moribund program-one long slated for extinction by conservatives in Congress.

If Mr. Bush has been steering the military campaign since Sept. 11 with plainspoken Reaganism, he is charting the war's nonlethal offensive with Kennedy-like largesse. President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps in 1961. At the same time he revamped and expanded foreign aid emerging from the post-war Marshall Plan era.

In the old millennium, venturing new billions on overseas public works like water wells, food giveaways, schools, and textbooks would have been anathema for a conservative president pledged to cut domestic welfare. In the mid-1990s Republican lawmakers attempted to slash foreign aid and eliminate the U.S. Agency for International Development. Jesse Helms, Republican Senator from North Carolina and then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, earned jeers from the human-rights establishment by declaring that spending on foreign aid was sending taxpayers' money "down a rathole."

At the same time, important community development in poor countries has been carried out more and more by private relief groups, both Christian and secular, American and European. On Capitol Hill, Republican lawmakers admit they would never have let Bill Clinton get away with an enormous expansion of governmental foreign aid. Those who favor increasing aid have long suggested that private organizations are more effective than governmental ones.

But Bill Clinton wasn't fighting this war. Republicans have exchanged ratholes for foxholes. "The war on terrorism has radically changed a lot of budget items in this government," said Lester Munson, Republican spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an aide to Sen. Helms. "This aid package should be looked at in the context of increased aid for law enforcement and immigration programs. Like other aspects of this war, you have to be the world leader on this issue."

Another reason conservatives are circumspect about big spending is Andrew Natsios. As head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, he will be the president's point man for the new aid. Mr. Natsios, a longtime public servant in Massachusetts, knows a thing or two about ratholes. In 2000 he took over managing the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and its notorious boondoggle, the Big Dig. Then-governor Paul Cellucci hired Mr. Natsios to rein in the mammoth tunnel-digging project under Boston Harbor-the largest highway construction project in U.S. history-after his predecessor ran up billions in cost overruns, litigation, and delays.

Mr. Natsios first earned a reputation as a fiscal conservative while a Republican legislator in the Massachusetts House. He supported a referendum limiting property taxes and rollbacks on income tax. Later he served at USAID under Mr. Bush's father and then became a vice president for World Vision. When he took over the Big Dig, former legislative colleague Barbara Anderson observed, "Andrew Natsios is the kind of man who learns from history and is therefore not doomed to repeat it." She predicted, "If he can get control of the Big Dig, we might in the future define 'good government' as him."

Eight months later Mr. Natsios left the project to accept the president's nomination to head USAID. Mr. Bush stocked the aid agency with other outside experts, in contrast to the Clinton era, when State Department careerists dominated the development agency's top tier. Working under Mr. Natsios is Roger Winter, former director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. Mr. Winter closely allied himself with members of a Christian coalition, along with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, working to end the war in Sudan. In many ways "new aid" grows out of a maturing alliance between humanistic human-rights activists, conservatives, and activists who earned political stripes lobbying against Christian persecution.

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