Wednesday, November 01, 2006

All the friends money can buy

WaPo - Republican and Democratic administrations have insisted for decades they do not engage in the grubby vote-buying practices that are common in elections for key U.N. posts.

Yet poor countries that serve on the influential Security Council typically receive substantially more U.S. aid dollars and find it easier to obtain loans or grants from financial institutions that are strongly influenced by the United States and other economic powerhouses, according to recent academic studies.

Officials from the United States and several international agencies questioned the findings, insisting that they direct assistance on the basis of need, not in pursuit of votes on the Security Council. They said there are scores of factors that drive the distribution of loans and aid budgets that the research did not consider.

Still, the findings underscore the importance the United States places on cultivating even the weakest members of the Security Council, the lone international body with the power to impose universally binding economic sanctions and grant legitimacy to military adventures. They also suggest a possible price tag.

A two-year seat on the Security Council, for instance, can generate a 59 percent spike in U.S. assistance, according to a study by two Harvard University scholars that tracked U.S. economic and military assistance from 1946 to 2001. In times of crisis, U.S. aid to some member countries has increased by as much as 170 percent. Those aid levels tend to recede after the country leaves the 15-nation council.

United Nations aid agencies such as the Children's Fund, which has always been headed by a U.S. national, have also directed extra money toward disadvantaged children from countries that serve on the U.N. council, the study shows. In an important year, defined as a period that has attracted intensive news coverage, council members experienced a 63 percent increase in overseas development assistance, the study found.

"On average the typical developing country serving on the council can anticipate an additional $16 million from the United States and $1 million from the U.N.," wrote Harvard economics graduate student Ilyana Kuziemko and Eric Werker, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School. "During important years, these numbers rise to $45 million from the U.S. and $8 million from the U.N."

Kuziemko said the study did not uncover "smoking gun" proof that the United States has used aid to buy influence. But she said the investigation uncovered a statistical pattern "that is very consistent with vote buying."