WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney said on Tuesday the United States must overhaul its foreign aid program by linking its tens of billions of dollars in assistance to rules that would force many developing countries to change their trade and economic policies.
The Republican presidential candidate said such changes are needed to foster political reforms in the Middle East, where four Americans were recently killed at a US consulate in Libya.
Romney’s speech, delivered at former president Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative, jump-started a busy day for the presidential candidates in New York City.
Obama also spoke at the conference, a few hours after delivering a major address to the United Nations General Assembly.
In addition, Romney and Obama both appeared on NBC as part of the network’s “Education Nation” series.
In the address at the Clinton conference, Romney outlined his plans to transform the foreign aid system. Labeling the plan a “Prosperity Pact,’’ Romney said it would solicit information from the private sector to identify barriers to investment, trade, and entrepreneurialism in developing nations.
These nations would receive US aid in exchange for removing those barriers and opening up their markets to US investment and trade.
“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 about $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,” he 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 had been introduced by Clinton, who praised the Republican nominee for his support of the national service program AmeriCorps and of 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 said, to widespread laughter and applause.
Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention has been credited with boosting voters’ perceptions of Obama.
In his speech at the conference, the president focused on human trafficking, which he equated with “modern slavery.’’
More than 20 million people worldwide are considered victims of trafficking, from young girls conscripted into prostitution to workers who are barred from leaving their low-pay, high-workload jobs.
‘‘It is barbaric and it is evil and it has no place in a civilized world,’’ Obama said.
To combat its spread, Obama said, he issued an executive order that expanded rules against trafficking to all federal contractors and subcontractors, including overseas work.
The White House also said that it would offer more training on the crime to judges, prosecutors, and police in the United States.