It doesn't look pretty: The United States ranks last among the world's 28 top foreign aid donor countries, and its foreign assistance levels have dropped dramatically over the past 10 years, according to a United Nations report.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2002, a wide-ranging report that includes both fascinating country statistics and a questionable development ranking of 137 nations, puts the United States well below Denmark, the Netherlands, Japan and even Spain and Portugal on the list of the biggest foreign aid donor countries relative to the size of their economies.

Granted, if you look at the actual dollar figures, the $9.9 billion annual U.S. foreign assistance ranks only second after Japan's $13.5 billion.

But when you look at countries' foreign aid relative to the size of their economies, the United States is devoting 0.1 per cent of its gross national product (GNP) to help the world's poorest countries, less than any other industrialized nation.

By comparison, Denmark spends 1.06 percent of its GNP on foreign aid, the Netherlands 0.84 percent, Norway 0.80 percent, Germany 0.27 percent, Japan 0.28 percent, Portugal 0.26 percent, and Spain 0.22 percent. What's worse, U.S. foreign aid has by this measure been cut in half over the past 10 years.

Is this something we should care about? You bet. Until earlier this year, the decline in U.S. foreign aid was not seen as a catastrophe in Washington: Conservative Republicans had persuaded many moderates in Congress that foreign aid had for many years been wasted in handouts to corrupt foreign leaders who often stashed it in their Swiss bank accounts.

Washington's line was that the United States could best help other countries through free trade: The mantra -- backed by many developing countries -- was ''trade, not aid.'' But in recent months, the administration has approved a scandalous farm subsidies bill, steel quotas and other protectionist measures. Hence, U.S. foreign aid deserves to be reexamined with a new perspective because, as it stands, poor countries are getting neither enough aid nor enough free trade.

Administration officials say the U.N. report's way of measuring countries' generosity is arbitrary, and that many of the report's figures are outdated.

They say the United States provides significant military assistance to developing countries, which is not included in these figures, and allows other rich nations to look better in international aid charts. And they say that, in pure dollar terms, the United States is now the world's largest donor country, because Japan slipped to second place last year, and the U.N. report's latest data are from 2000.

In addition, President Bush announced at the U.N. anti-poverty summit last March in Monterrey, Mexico, that U.S. aid would include an additional $5 billion a year to the world's poorest countries over the next three years. Under the proposal, this 50 percent increase in U.S. aid -- which is subject to congressional approval -- would be tied to ''good governance'' policies in recipient countries.

''We do not believe that this is the best way to measure foreign assistance,'' says Ed Fox, assistant administrator with the U.S. government's Agency for International Development (AID), referring to the U.N. report.

''It's a step in the right direction,'' says Paul Segal, a U.N. economist who helped write the report, adding that the proposed funds would increase U.S. foreign aid to about 0.15 percent of the country's GNP. ``But even with the new aid, the United States will still be near the bottom of the ranking.''


Andres Oppenheimer, Miami Herald