Mitt Romney outlines proposed changes to US foreign aid system

WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney Tuesday said the United States must alter a foreign aid program that delivers tens of billions in assistance to countries around the world, saying that such funding should be tied to forcing developing countries to change their trade and economic policies.

The Republican presidential candidate said such changes are needed to bring about change in the Middle East, where four Americans were recently killed at an American consulate in Libya.

“Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack,” Romney said, in blunt terms.

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Romney’s speech, delivered at the Clinton Global Initiative, jump-started a busy day for the presidential candidates who were criss-crossing one another in New York. Obama, who is planning to speak before the same crowd as Romney later in the day, was also delivering a major address to the United Nations General Assembly.

In addition, Romney and Obama are both appearing on NBC today as part of the network’s “Education Nation” series.

Romney this morning outlined plans to transform the foreign aid system, one that would link financial assistance from the United States to trade and development policies of the countries that need help. Romney said the program – which he labeled a “Prosperity Pact” – would use input from the private sector to identify barriers to investment, trade, and entrepreneurialism in developing nations.

Then, in exchange for removing those barriers and opening up their markets to US investment and trade, those nations would receive financial assistance from the United States.

“Too often our passion for charity is tempered by our sense that our aid is not always effective,” Romney said. “We see stories of cases where American aid has been diverted to corrupt governments. We wonder why years of aid and relief seem never to extinguish the hardship, why the suffering persists decade after decade.”

The United States is the world’s largest donor, contributing $53 billion in foreign assistance in fiscal year 2010, according to the United States Agency for International Development. Of that, $38 billion was in economic assistance and $15 billion in military assistance. About 9 percent of the funding went to countries in the Middle East.

“I am often asked why, and what can we do to lead the Middle East to stability, to ease the suffering and the anger and the hate,” Romney said. “Religious extremism is certainly part of the problem. But that’s not the whole story.”

He described a region that is filled with young people, who are jobless, frustrated, and now able to use technology to mobilize.

“Idle, humiliated by poverty, and crushed by government corruption, their frustration and anger grows,” Romney said.

“Work,” Romney said. “That must be at the heart of our effort to help people build economies that can create jobs for people, young and old alike. Work builds self-esteem. It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding. Work will not long tolerate corruption nor quietly endure the brazen theft by government of the product of hard-working men and women.”

Romney also resurrected a point that drew controversy when he suggested during a fundraiser in Jerusalem that the Israelis’ culture had helped them become more economically successful than the Palestinians.

Only today he used a different example – North Korea and South Korea – and suggested that political systems have more to do with differences between neighboring countries than, as he has claimed in the past, their cultures.

“Just think of North and South Korea,” Romney said. “I became convinced that the crucial difference between these countries wasn’t geography. I noticed the most successful countries shared something in common. They were the freest. They protected the rights of the individual. They enforced the rule of law. And they encouraged free enterprise. They understood that economic freedom is the only force in history that has consistently lifted people out of poverty – and kept people out of poverty.”

Romney was speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative, which is run by former President Bill Clinton. Less than three weeks ago, Clinton was at the podium at the Democratic National Convention, cutting through Romney’s policies and outlining why President Obama should be re-elected. Today, Clinton introduced Romney, in part by talking about their mutual admiration for City Year, the Boston-based program.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good,” Romney joked as he took the stage. “After that introduction, I guess all I have to do is wait a day or two for the bounce.”

“One of the best things that can happen to any cause, to any people, is to have Bill Clinton as its advocate,” Romney added.