WASHINGTON - Anti-poverty campaigners said they were delighted by a White House announcement that U.S. aid would be increased by twice as much as President George W. Bush had indicated just last week.
They also said the unanticipated change raised questions about the U.S. administration's grasp of and effectiveness in dealing with development financing.
"We love any mistakes that mean more money for the poor," said Adrienne Smith, spokesperson for Oxfam America, said Wednesday. "We are overwhelmingly delighted with the new increase."
Last week, Bush had said Washington would contribute five billion dollars over the next three budget years to developing countries, a move touted as the largest single aid increase in U.S. history. That figure now stands at 10 billion dollars.
A White House statement last week said that these funds would go into a Millennium Challenge Account to fund initiatives to help developing nations improve their economies and standards of living. The scheme had come under attack from Democrats, activists and some developing countries, which argued the one-time increase would be too little, too late.
The White House Wednesday modified the plan to address some of these fears, saying it would increase foreign aid spending by 50 percent over three years beginning in the 2004 fiscal year. The proposal would raise development assistance to 15 billion dollars, from 10 billion dollars, by 2006 and would not decrease it thereafter.
The new plan was again seen as a way for the U.S. administration, under fire for penny-pinching on aid, to deflect criticism and to buttress Bush's efforts to enlist other countries and international organizations in his campaign to tie aid to on-the- ground economic results.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he (Bush) tried to shift the ball to the courts of other countries," said Marie Clarke, national coordinator with Washington-based debt-relief advocates Jubilee USA.
Bush leaves for Latin America Thursday and is likely to reiterate his insistence on the performance-for-money formula when he addresses the U.N. International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico.
Speculation continued as to why the sudden change of heart, with some saying it was a botched public relations move and others saying administration officials simply got their sums wrong.
A White House spokesperson told reporters Wednesday the plan was "not portrayed as accurately as it should have been." Apart from signaling the new increase and saying it would last longer than the initial three years, he did not indicate other changes.
Bush has made clear U.S. aid would be directly linked to private investment and the policy reforms needed to stimulate it.
While they were pleased at the new increase, advocates including Oxfam and Interaction, an umbrella for development groups, said they remained concerned that the money would not be dispensed soon enough and that the performance benchmarks were unclear.
David Beckmann, president of faith-based Bread for the World, said that after decades of declining foreign assistance budgets, President Bush's proposal was "a breath of fresh air."
"However, 2004 is a long way off for the 200 million people in sub- Saharan Africa alone who go to bed hungry each night," he added. "Africa needs our help now, why wait?''
Interaction said the money should have been aimed squarely at reducing poverty in the poorest developing nations rather than tying it to economic reforms, corruption, and human rights.
"Monitoring the criteria for which nations will qualify for funds should be done in full partnership with developing nations, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), donors and others with a stake in the outcome," said Mary McClymont, Interaction's president.
"This compact should be struck in a way that makes recipients accountable to donors, and makes donors accountable to recipients," she added.
Clarke, of Jubilee USA, said her group wants to see aid going to developing countries with studies determining the social and environmental effect of policies attached to funds beforehand.
Many groups have said the United States needs to reach beyond economic fundamentalism - which they describe as blind adherence to free markets. With key details not yet spelled out, activists and analysts alike have said it remains to be seen whether the U.S. administration will continue to embrace, or repudiate, such policy prescriptions as privatization of water services, fees for public schools and health clinics, and business deregulation.
Copyright 2002 IPS