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5 September 1999

Retiring USAID Head Vents Frustration

J. Brian Atwood has a disquieting message as he prepares to step down as head of the U.S. foreign aid agency: Don't believe those stories about democracy and free enterprise enabling developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty.

And part of the problem, according to Atwood, is what he sees as Washington's pinch-penny attitude toward Third World problems. ''What will it take to wake up our political leaders?'' he asked. ''More failed states? More wars? More south-to-north migration? More transmission of infectious diseases? More terrorism?''

After six years as head of the Agency for International Development, Atwood will return to the private sector next week. He could have gone quietly, as his predecessors have done, but decided not to. He gave his valedictory Tuesday at a luncheon at the Overseas Development Council, which attempts to sensitize opinion-makers on Third World issues.

''The sad and even dangerous reality is that globalization and the democratic market economy movement have not closed the gap between rich and poor,'' he said. 'Much of the change we are seeing is occurring within the previous ruling classes of these societies. Some in the donor community seem content to nurture reform without equity.''

Economic growth, he said, can reduce poverty only with investments in health care, education, job creation, community development and food security. The industrial world is getting ''shamelessly rich'' while most of the world's people are losing ground, Atwood said. He put the ratio of rich to poor at about 65 to 1, or for every $65 earned in industrial countries, $1 is earned in poor ones. About 1.3 billion people live in extreme poverty, he said.

Atwood called the government's international affairs budget ''a joke. There is no money to do anything,'' he said. ''It's outrageous.''

He took aim at the congressional class of 1994, the election that gave Republicans control of the House and Senate. It was filled with ''nonpassport-carrying members,'' Atwood said, a not-so-subtle suggestion that such people think provincially, not globally.

Another source of distress for Atwood was U.S. policy toward the United Nations. ''What we are doing to the United Nations system is unconscionable,'' he said. ''At a time when the U.N. is bending under the weight of human crises, most emanating from the developing world, we are sapping it of its vitality by refusing to pay our bills. Then we criticize it for not doing its job.''

He described as ''shameful'' a recent compromise under which the Clinton administration would pay $819 million in arrears on the condition that it pay a smaller share in the future. The congressionally drafted approach is 'designed to appease people whose real goal is to kill the United Nations,'' Atwood said.

Atwood was scheduled to become ambassador to Brazil after his service at AID, but Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, refused to convene hearings on the nomination. Helms was smarting from Atwood's characterization of him as an ''isolationist'' and his accusation that Helms drew up complicated government reorganization plans ''on the back of an envelope.'' Atwood withdrew his name from consideration for the Brazil post in May.