New voices are being raised in criticism of U.S. foreign aid - not because of objections to foreign aid as such - but because too much of it does not end up in the hands of the poor and needy.

Such concerns are valid and they raise questions about the nature and purpose of aid to other nations. And it may be time to re-evaluate foreign aid, its goals, approaches, and how to make best use of the money.Ask most people about foreign aid and they think of helping the poverty-stricken, underdeveloped countries of the Third World. Yet only about a third of America's $14 billion in assistance goes for that purpose.

As a group of religious agencies complained this week, most of the money goes to countries or activities the U.S. considers vital to its national security. Ten nations - Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Portugal, the Philippines, Kenya, Somalia. Oman, Morocco, and Tunisia - get the major share. They all grant the U.S. access rights or military bases. Most of the aid is used for military or political purposes.

Now there is nothing wrong with spending money for those purposes, but if that is what foreign aid is going to be, then there should be some other kind of program aimed at reducing global poverty.

Bipartisan support is growing in Congress for the Global Poverty Reduction Act, an initiative that calls for nations to join hands in an effort to eliminate the worst aspects of global poverty by the year 2000. It does not seek an increase in development funds, but rather hopes to refocus the aid effort.

Further, the measure seeks to establish standards for measuring effectiveness of aid programs. This would enable aid money to be put where it will do the most good.

Basically, the emphasis should be less on building per capita Gross National Product and more on basic human needs that have real impact at an individual level, according to RESULTS, an international, non-partisan group battling world hunger.

RESULTS says aid ought to focus on infant mortality rates, female illiteracy, and reducing the absolute poverty level. Absolute poverty is that level at which basic food and shelter are too low for people to survive.

Those are worthy goals and clearly, something needs to be done to make foreign aid more effective.

One cannot see the human suffering that goes on in much of the world and not be moved to help, but aiding poor countries also serves the long-range self-interest of the U.S. Where poverty can be reduced, there is less chance for revolution, fewer opportunities for communism or other dictatorial regimes, less chance that freedom will become a casualty of desperation.

Let's take a better look at what the U.S. is doing with foreign aid. Then let's try to do it better.