Sen. Jesse Helms, applying the concept of “compassionate conservatism” to foreign aid, proposed yesterday that the new Bush administration shut down the U.S. Agency for International Development and funnel assistance abroad through private and faith-based organizations.
Offering to work with President-elect George W. Bush to make the idea work, Mr. Helms said in an address at the American Enterprise Institute that if it were implemented, he would break with his past practice by supporting an increase in foreign aid funding.
USAID, the leading government agency for international development aid, should be replaced by a new body that would funnel block grants to organizations like Catholic Relief Services, World Vision and Save the Children, said Mr. Helms, the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime foe of foreign aid abuse.
The remarks came in a wide-ranging foreign policy speech titled, “Towards a Compassionate Conservative Foreign Policy.”
Referring to Mr. Bush’s familiar campaign theme, which called for the use of American faith-based organizations to help needy Americans, Mr. Helms said: “This vision of compassionate conservatism must not stop at the water’s edge.”
Charities such as Samaritan’s Purse, run by the Rev. Franklin Graham in Mr. Helms’ home state of North Carolina, “do more good, with less money, for more people around the world than the entire U.S. foreign aid bureaucracy combined,” he said.
“I will make this pledge today: If we can reform the way in which we deliver aid to the needy, based on President Bush’s ‘compassionate conservative’ vision … then I will be willing to take the lead in the Senate in supporting an increased U.S. investment in support of the important endeavors that I have referred to.”
Mr. Helms, who once described foreign aid as the equivalent of throwing tax dollars down a “foreign rat hole,” became choked up when describing the work of Samaritan’s Purse, which has humanitarian projects in more than 100 countries.
He said the organization, run by a son of the Rev. Billy Graham, has treated more than 100,000 patients in a Sudanese hospital and clinics, despite coming under constant fire in the brutal civil war there.
The organization also distributed food and medicine in Kosovo and built 5,000 homes in Central America in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, he said. It has distributed more than 1 million shoe boxes with Christmas gifts to needy children abroad.
Describing current USAID staff as the “do-nothing crowd,” Mr. Helms proposed that it be replaced with a new agency to be called the International Development Foundation.
The move “will reduce the size of America’s bloated foreign aid bureaucracy and then take the money saved and use every penny of it to empower these ‘armies of compassion’ to help the world’s neediest people,” he said.
USAID Administrator J. Brady Anderson issued a conciliatory statement yesterday afternoon but did not address the call for shutting down his agency, which already directs 37 percent of bilateral development aid through nongovernmental organizations including World Vision and Catholic Relief Services.
“I agree with Senator Helms on the important role that faith-based organizations can, and do, play in our foreign assistance program,” Mr. Anderson said.
“I think we have made progress during my tenure in expanding our partnership with these organizations, whose work is critical to meeting the needs of millions around the world less fortunate than ourselves.”
Mr. Helms used much of his speech to criticize the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, saying the outgoing president had opposed “every one of our important initiatives.”
Mr. Bush, he said, would be a president “we can rely on to work with us not against us in advancing America’s interests in the world.”
Mr. Helms said he hoped to craft a Cuba policy similar to the one President Reagan used to undermine communism in Poland.
He proposed sending money and humanitarian aid to help the Cuban people, through channels outside the government, while using international pressure to isolate President Fidel Castro, the last communist dictator in the hemisphere.
He credited the Cuban-Americans in Florida with giving Mr. Bush the presidency and predicted that Mr. Bush would visit the island during his term to “attend the inauguration of the new democratically elected president of Cuba.”
Mr. Helms also said the new administration should increase military aid to Taiwan, saying Mr. Clinton’s policies had “let down our friends” in Taipei.
He said he would work to see that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are invited to join NATO, and he warned Russia against seeking to reassert its authority over the former Soviet republics.
Mr. Helms reiterated his firm opposition to the treaty for an International Criminal Court, signed by the United States on New Year’s Eve.
“If I do nothing else this year, I will make certain that President Clinton’s outrageous and unconscionable decision to sign the Rome Treaty … is reversed and repealed,” he said.
He suggested that a Bush administration official should go to the United Nations, ask to see the treaty “and then take out a pen and draw a line through Ambassador [David] Scheffer’s name.”
Mr. Scheffer, the U.S. ambassador for war-crimes issues, signed the treaty.
Mr. Helms also addressed rumors about his health, saying he had heard talks since Election Day that he has pancreatic cancer, terminal prostate cancer and even that he spent Thanksgiving on a respirator in Raleigh, N.C.
“The media have been bubbling in hopeful anticipation of my imminent demise,” he laughed. “None of it is true. I’m not sick yet.”
Ben Barber contributed to this report.