It is hard to know whether this a good-news story or a bad-news story, but here it is: The Agency for International Development, which spent the Cold War fighting Communism with foreign aid and helping poor countries like Bangladesh immunize children, has found a new customer for its services: America's inner cities.
The good news is that AID has something to offer. The bad news is that parts of Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore now need it as much as Bangladesh.Over the years AID developed a reputation in Washington as a bloated and ineffective bureaucracy. But the Clinton administration has been engaged in a major overhaul of AID. The Clinton team is trying to shed what the agency did worst - supporting anti-Communist dictators - and focus on what it did best: fostering cheap, low-tech methods for accelerating immunization, literacy and agricultural development and for nurturing small businesses.
The agency's shift in focus from Bangladesh to Baltimore was an accident waiting to happen. With no Cold War, it was eager to justify its usefulness to taxpayers dubious of foreign aid, and it discovered American mayors so beleaguered by the problems of their inner cities that they were ready to take help from anywhere, even if it meant comparisons between their inner cities and the Third World.
While AID's charter prohibits it from actually financing programs in the United States, nothing prevents the agency from sharing its expertise.
While talking this past spring with Marian Wright Edelman, the longtime head of the Children's Defense Fund, about the health problems faced by American children, the agency's director, J. Brian Atwood, was struck by the similarities with the problems his agency was fighting in Mali and Egypt, he recalled on Tuesday in an interview.
Edelman, he said, was struck by how in some respects Mali and Egypt seemed to be doing much better than the United States.
In particular, Atwood recounted, they noted that measles vaccination rates among inner-city children under age 2 were averaging around 40 percent in the United States.
Yet, governments in Egypt, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, using some of their own programs and some financed and planned by AID, had achieved childhood immunization rates in the high 70 percent range, according to the UNICEF Progress of Nations report.
During an interview on C-span a few days later, Atwood mentioned this discussion and mentioned that his agency hoped to become more involved in sharing ideas with American cities.
An aide to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke of Baltimore happened to be watching, and the city immediately contacted Atwood and volunteered Baltimore for the first test case. Other cities followed.
Atwood, recognizing a new market for his agency's expertise, ordered aides to come up with a program, eventually christened "Lessons Without Borders." On June 6, a team of the agency's senior health and development experts held a daylong seminar with their Baltimore counterparts at Morgan State University, discussing AID programs that had worked or, often just as important, had not worked.
Another conference is now planned for Boston this fall, and the agency is laying out a two-year schedule for other cities that have asked for advice.
Still, it was not an easy thing for Schmoke. The headline in The Baltimore Sun the day of the conference read: "Baltimore to Try Third World Remedies."
In fairness to Baltimore, it is one of the most thriving cities on the East Coast, with its rebuilt inner harbor, National Aquarium and downtown stadium of Camden Yards, anchoring a real urban renaissance.
But that renaissance is a work in progress. Just a few miles from the inner harbor, areas of Baltimore's inner city are rife with AIDS, illiteracy, family breakdown, joblessness and drugs.
"We have to let everybody know that we are not suggesting that our entire city has the same problems as a Third World country," said Schmoke. "But we ought to recognize that there are sections of the city that are similar to the problems of less-developed countries."
Baltimore officials say they learned a number of things from their AID visitors. Although Baltimore has well-financed social programs, many people do not come in to use them. One reason is that 150,000 out of Baltimore's population of 730,000 are functionally illiterate.
"We found that people could not read the signs," said Tawney.
"You want to know what the real irony is?" asked Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore's commissioner of health. "The company that develops these communications programs for AID is from Baltimore. Its office is about three blocks from here."