This article originally appeared in the issue of May 15, 1972.
Foreign aid is not dead but it seemed so last month, as the International Development Conference (a meeting of foreign aid experts that has been held in fifteen of the last twenty years) opened here in a distinct atmosphere of post-mortem. The only major mention of foreign aid in a Presidential campaign has been by Wallace, and his swipes at it went unrefuted. In Santiago, Chile, a few days earlier, World Bank director, Robert S. McNamara, had told the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development that the state of development in most poor countries was “unacceptable–and growing more so.”
Treasury Secretary John Connally had spoken of the need for the U.S. Government to join forces with American-owned multi-national corporations to insure their access to raw materials. In Delhi, his Under Secretary, Charles Walker, told the Indians–who exist on 13¢ a day–that their needs faced stiff competition from growing U.S. domestic problems.
At the International Development Conference itself, James P. Grant of the Overseas Development Council warned that the “coincidence of the coming global job crisis with Peking’s legitimation on the world scene,” coupled with neo-isolationism in America, greatly improved “the attractiveness of the Maoist model to many in the developing countries.”
As if an echo, Mahbub ul Haq, a senior economic adviser in the World Bank, said, “the developing world would have been better off” had it not received the limited sums of aid in recent years. Emphasizing that he spoke for himself, not the bank, Haq proposed that the poor nations “serve notice” on the rich that they cannot pay their present $60 billion debt and that steps must be taken for its “orderly cancellation.” He predicted that many poor countries may follow the Chinese model of “how to achieve full employment and equitable income distribution at a relatively low level of per capita income.” The poor countries he said, were “passing through a very dark aid ugly mood” and there might be “violent political explosions” and “a turn toward socialism.”
As if this weren’t enough, most of foreign aid’s old liberal constituency seemed to have defected to the environmentalists. The International Development Conference had been upstaged a month earlier by the computerized prediction from the M.I.T. team of the Club of Rome that present population growth rates, seeking projected increases in production and consumption, will expose the planet to irreversible exhaustion–to overrun and collapse–within a century. The report has won national attention and provoked sharp debate. Anthony Lewis of The New York Times said that it was “likely to be one of the most important documents of our age.”‘
The shrinking band of foreign aid supporters, already backed to the wall by charges that aid was bad because it encouraged intervention and helped the rich but not the poor, braced themselves to face the argument that world growth was impossible because it would exhaust the planet. As Barbara Ward was to put it, the growing sentiment seemed to be, “Let us stop aiding and growing and stay home where we belong, minding our own business and looking after endangered species like the bald eagle.” However, the conference soon discovered that, if cold-war motivations, Walt W. Rostow’s theories of “take-off,” and old modes of development could be swept into history, foreign aid is about to be given a new hold on life by a young generation of environmentalists whose discovery of a finite world and unified biosphere is leading them in unexpected directions.