The excellent media watchdog group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) recently ran an eye-opening article on American stinginess in foreign aid, "The World’s Most Generous Misers: Tsunami reporting misrepresented U.S. giving".
It’s particularly interesting to see how much the mainstream media have not only downplayed the uninspiring realities of American foreign aid, but have gone so far as to create a myth of prodigal American generousity. The need to provide upbeat entertainment, err, "news" leads journalists to just make things up.
Which is why it’s not that surprising that most Americans erronneously believe that a large percentage of government outlays goes toward foreign aid.
In March 1997, a joint poll by the Washington Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked Americans which area of federal expenditure they thought was the largest. Was it Social Security (which actually constituted about a quarter of the budget)? Medicare? Military spending? Sixty-four percent of respondents said it was foreign aid—when in reality foreign aid made up only about 1 percent of total outlays (Washington Post, 3/29/97).
Today, Americans think about 20 percent of the federal budget goes toward foreign aid. When told the actual figure for U.S. foreign aid giving (about 1.6 percent of the discretionary budget), most respondents said they did not believe the number was the full amount (Program on International Policy Attitudes, 3/7/05).
It’s no wonder that most Americans think they live in an extremely generous nation: Media reports often quote government officials pointing out that their country is the largest overall aid donor, and the biggest donor of humanitarian aid. But what reporters too often fail to explain is how big the U.S. economy is—more than twice the size of Japan’s, the second largest, and about as big as economies number 3–10 combined. Considered as a portion of the nation’s economy, or of its federal expenditures, the U.S. is actually among the smallest donors of international aid among the world’s developed countries.
Here’s a telling example of the disinformative fare that we’re fed:
On the op-ed page, the Times (1/4/05) gave space to Carol Adelman of the Hudson Institute to defend American aid giving. She claimed that looking only at public giving made Europeans “appear generous”: “Norway ranks first in allocating 0.92 percent of its gross national income to foreign aid. But Norway’s $2 billion of yearly aid is less than what American companies alone give.”
Given that Norway’s economy is less than 2 percent that of the U.S., it’s not surprising that its total foreign aid budget is not large in absolute terms. But it’s not true that Americans are privately more generous than Norwegians: Norway’s per capita private aid contributions are almost five times the U.S.’s, according to the Center for Global Development (12/29/04).