Patrick: Dispelling myths about foreign aid
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January 25th, 2012
06:50 PM ET

Patrick: Dispelling myths about foreign aid

Editor's Note: Stewart Patrick is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats, and International Security.

By Stewart Patrick,

Unsurprisingly, foreign aid has once again become a political football in this year’s primary season. Today’s GOP presidential candidates regularly bash it, echoing “Mr. Republican” Robert Taft—who dismissed overseas assistance more than six decades ago as “pouring money down a rat hole.”

But public opposition to providing foreign aid is one of the hoariest misconceptions in U.S. foreign policy.

In fact, U.S. citizens support foreign aid, particularly when it is targeted to alleviating poverty and humanitarian suffering. This is remarkable, given the magnitude by which Americans consistently overestimate the percentage of the federal budget actually devoted to foreign aid. These findings emerge from a newly updated digest of U.S. and international pollingon global issues developed by CFR and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They suggest that bashing foreign aid—as most of the leading GOP candidates for president have done—is a campaign strategy of dubious value. It may provide red meat to the Republican base, but it ignores the generous impulses of the American majority.

All of this brings to mind a famous lyric from the Broadway show, Porgy and Bess. To paraphrase Gershwin, things you’re liable to read in the (GOP foreign policy) bible ain’t necessarily so.

In the United States, there is actually a broad consensus that developed countries have “a moral responsibility to work to reduce hunger and severe poverty in poor countries”—81 percent of the U.S. public holds this view (WPO, 2008). Americans also believe that it is in rich countries’ own interest to help poor countries develop, but that wealthy nations are not doing enough to help poor nations.

U.S. public support for foreign aid has proven resilient despite the global economic downturn and the struggles of many Americans to get by.  In a 2010 poll by the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs, 74 percent of U.S. citizens polled favored providing “food and medical assistance” to other countries, and 62 percent favored delivering “aid to help needy countries to develop their economies.” To be sure, the recession had dragged down these numbers slightly from 2004 (when the equivalent figures were 82 percent and 74 percent), but both propositions retained clear majority support.

As in years past, when asked, Americans initially tend to say that their government should reduce economic assistance to other nations (CCGA, 2010). But this attitude rests on persistent misperceptions of the share of the U.S. federal budget devoted to aid. For decades now, U.S. citizens have overestimated U.S. foreign aid spending by several orders of magnitude. When asked the public in 2010 to estimate the percentage of the federal budget going to foreign aid, respondents on average reckoned 27 percent—and suggested that a more appropriate percentage might be 13 percent. The actual figure is less than one percent. (When informed of the actual figure, Americans tend to be initially incredulous). When given accurate information, a clear majority of Americans favors either increasing current aid levels or keeping levels constant. In addition, a large majority of Americans say they would be willing to increase spending on foreign aid to meet anti-poverty targets, provided other nations agree to do the same.

During  recessions, legislators are quick to target overseas assistance for the scalpel. Unlike military spending, after all, there is no powerful domestic constituency that will be alienated by draconian cuts.

But here the public parts company with politicians.

When asked by pollsters to engage in an (imaginary) budget-cutting exercise of their own, Americans did not single out foreign aid, especially its more altruistic forms, for disproportionate cuts. In 2011, for example, the Program for Public Consultation provided a representative sample of Americans with an online exercise, allowing them to manipulate the U.S. federal budget, broken down into 31 categories. Participants actually increased funding for humanitarian aid by 18 percent and nicked global health by just 2 percent, while cutting development assistance by a more significant 14 percent. On average, respondents cut these three aid programs by 3 percent—significantly less than the average of 11 percent they advocated across the 31 programs. By contrast, respondents placed heavier cuts on U.S. aid programs with less altruistic motives, recommending a 15 percent decline in military assistance and a 23 percent reduction in Economic Support Funds (essentially political support for U.S. allies).

However, the Republican presidential candidates have read the field differently. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have both endorsed Texas Governor Rick Perry’s idea of “zeroing out” the U.S. foreign aid budget, and eliminating all assistance “to countries that don’t support the United States of America.” Gingrich has stated, “I think it’s a pretty good idea to start at zero and sometimes stay there.” Romney has agreed that the United States should “start everything off at zero.” Unsurprisingly, the libertarian Ron Paul has been most scathing, calling foreign aid to Africa “worthless.” As he said at Tuesday’s presidential debate, “I think the aid is all worthless. It doesn’t do any good for most of the people. You take money from poor people in this country and you end up giving it to rich people in poorer countries.”

Indeed, among the remaining GOP candidates, only former Senator Rick Santorum has rejected “zeroing out” foreign aid, describing it as a form of “pandering.” Of aid to Africa, Santorum argues, “it’s absolutely essential.” His rationale is partly strategic, noting that the continent has in the past been “on the brink of complete meltdown and chaos, which would have been fertile ground for the radical Islamists to be able to get a foothold.” But he’s also been among the most ardent GOP champions of HIV-AIDS assistance in Africa.

Such positions suggest that Santorum, alone among the GOP hopefuls, would help preserve George W. Bush’s greatest presidential legacy: his enormous expansion of foreign aid, notably his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives worldwide. Bush also launched the Millennium Challenge Account, to channel more aid to countries that rule justly, promote economic growth, and invest in their people. These investments testified to the generosity of the United States and to the president’s conviction that well-targeted aid could advance human dignity worldwide.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart Patrick.

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Topics: 2012 Election • Aid

soundoff (115 Responses)
  1. Ron

    What there needs to be is a better way to distribute foreign aid if we are going to provide it. I agree completely that handing aid to most third world governments accomplishes nothing for the good of the majority of the population.
    We have a similar problem right in this country. We pay the poor, alcoholics and druggies to have children. These people receive as much as $1000 per child (do you really believe it goes to the welfare of the child?).

    January 26, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  2. Framing

    The foreign aid question is very susceptible to framing. For instance:

    "Do you think the US could do more to help alleviate disease and poverty around the world?"

    Is way more likely to draw a yes than:

    "Do you think the US should keep raking up massive debt to give handouts to countries that hate us?"

    January 26, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
    • Warson

      Mr Patrick, a member of the CFR knows VERY WELL that ALL foreign aid violates the 10th Amendment.

      October 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • Warson

      ALL foreign aid violates the 10th Amendment. READ IT.

      October 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  3. HDrider

    They always do the same thing "oh the foriegn aid is such a small part of our budget". Sure it is because you are not including the military aid that we provide to oh so many countries, from Afghanastan to Isreal to Pakistan. These two budgets together are huge and need to be drastically curtailed. For example we spent $1.2 Billion on military aid and $1.4 billion on Economic aid to Pakistan in 2010. I could put alot of folks to work and fix one he11 of alot of roads with nearly 3 billioin dollars! That's just one country!

    January 26, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • Warson

      HDrider for Congress!!

      October 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  4. Cheetahe

    60 billion a year for foreign aid is a lot of money for a nation whose balance sheet is dripping in red.
    The establishment ignores that the average US citizen does not what or care about an empire.
    Any candidate who will reduce or cut this whole spending is my hero.
    No more bribes for friends.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:22 pm | Reply
  5. The_Mick

    As a percentage of GDP, the USA looks very stingy when it come to foreign aid. We give 0.16% of our GDP. Almost all Northern European countries give between 0.56% and 1%.

    January 26, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  6. cj

    Other than emergency food aid for disaster shouldn't be our governments place to give charity when times are great much less when her operate at deficits. That is supposed to be our job so we can give to the charities we believe in.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  7. Voiceinthewind

    Charity begins at home and sending one half a billion dollars to Israhell to kill Palestinians is not what I call foreign aid. Feeding people in Banladesh is charity, feeding the poor in America is Charity but sending money to developed countries with thriving economies such as Israhell and Pakistan is not foreign aid it is a waste of money that can be used in America on American people for food, and education and housing.

    January 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  8. Mike

    OK everyone, read the last paragraph.
    I'm sure Obama will be taking credit for this very soon.

    So to all you windbags who have absolutely nothing positive to say about GWB I say maybe you should get your head out of the donkey's rear-end and actually watch something other than MSNBC.

    January 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  9. Richard

    The best foreign aid I can think of is to give the Arab countries advanced weaponry, especially bombs, but Instead of delivery by truck we could just dump them out of planes. Alternatively we could contract with Israel to deliver the bombs to the Arabs – the Israelis know how ...

    January 26, 2012 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  10. Sparrows345

    You guys are talking billions, when we are oh so much deeper in trouble than that. Some of you just are unable to grasp the difference between millions, billions and trillions. It's like having a bank account with $10,000 in it, you're worried about losing 0.50 cents. The numbers however don't lie, like potlicians and the media do.

    January 26, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
    • Roberto

      60 million dollars believe it or not will pay our state unpaid bills and prop up the economy putting to work the 600,000 unemployed ppl and increase our tax base working as a force multiplier.

      January 26, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Reply
      • Meteorlady

        How would that happen exactly? the government had NEVER ONCE created a job in the private sector. In fact the government is the sole cause and effect of what's happened today.

        June 13, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Roberto

      cost of Iraq's war 4 billion.....billion per month!!!!!!!! this is after combat slowed down just to keep peace. War cost in that context are considered foreign aid. Training foreign militaries is part of foreign aid!!! How many months we were there after 2003? hummm?

      January 26, 2012 at 11:10 pm | Reply
  11. Kate

    yes, Americans support giving aid to POOR countries....NOT Israel, who happens to be the largest recipient of aid from the US, which they use to kick people out of their homes and abuse human rights....

    January 26, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
  12. roy

    Aid should come to America first which is not the case.

    January 26, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Reply
    • Fred again

      That is the case. What some people here are saying is that all money in the federal budget should be spent here It's upsetting that many people commenting on an article about myths simply ignore the surveys results and repeat their own opinions. Rather shrilly too. Look at what was said, people. It does say YOU support foreign aid it says "most" Americans do, and at a level more than ten times what it is today. It does not say YOU have to agree. But in a Democracy, you don't have to agree. You DO have to agree with the idea that a majority wins, and go along even if you don't like the outcome. It's not like you get to say "Well, most people voted this way, but I didn't so I'm going to ignore that law." You don't get to pick and choose which laws you'll support. (Well, I do sometimes speed when the roads are clear, but that's why God made turbochargers..) We are a democracy. so everyone gets a vote. One. Majority rules – live with it. It works pretty good so far. Thank you for your input. Now sit down. Pass the brownies..

      May 22, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
      • broadfall

        @fredagain- when did foreign aid spending come up for a vote, do you mean the majority of Americans agrees because our "representative" in congress agreed. dude you need to add a little less harsh to those brownies next time..

        May 31, 2012 at 10:05 am |
  13. Blessed Geek

    I think the sentiment against foreign aid is not actually against foreign aid, but ,,,
    why we are paying billions to countries that clearly do not love us, who conspire against us.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • Meteorlady

      It's called status – we (the politicians and elites that runs us) need to show the world that we are strong and wealthy.

      June 13, 2012 at 10:41 am | Reply
  14. Roberto

    Not in particular against foreign aid but how you can explain laying off thousand of public employees that are essential for our society like firefighters,police and teachers because there is absolutely no money to pay them, opening up a pandoras box like a chain like reaction creating foreclosures,store closings,tax debasing and a following economic depression just because there is absolutely no money anywhere to pay these folks....come on people!!!!!
    How about getting our students in permanent debt with student loans by sallie mae instead of using that money to subsidize education for students with talent and desire to work right here in the USA. Not someone from China coming to use our scholarships while our people gets to take up loans. Then the Chinese students goes home and builds a new generation of nuclear reactors while our students work in three fast food jobs to repay their loan.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • Fred again

      The USA doesn't give scholarships to Chinese nationals. Where did you hear that?

      May 22, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  15. rad666

    How much does China and Russia spend on foreign aid? America is broke so it borrows money to give to other countries. What is wrong with that picture?

    January 26, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Reply
  16. 66Biker

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for helping anyone who needs help. But as far as foreign aid goes, I think our government should do what we do in our family. We always take care of our family first in the typical way, pay the rent and bills, buy the food and clothing, etc., and if there is anything left over, then by all means help anyone else who needs help. In other words, the government should take care of Americans first before they give away our money. After all, that is where they got the money they are giving away in the first place. I'm not saying the government should stop giving money to poor countries, just that they should take care of their own people first.

    As an example, President Obama said during his State of the Union speech that colleges need to stop raising tuition. I agree with that. But I also think that if someone is going to college and they apply for Food Stamps because they don't have enough money to buy food while they are in college, they should not be turned down. Just because you get student loans, grants, scholarships or actually work to pay for college does, that not mean you have enough money to pay for everything you need, and that most certainly includes food.

    January 26, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  17. Pogojo

    Why dont they put up a list of how much and where the money is going?

    January 27, 2012 at 1:28 am | Reply
  18. studdmuffins

    Eliminate ALL foreign aid. It does not buy loyalty or friends. Most of the countries who benefit from US aid do not bother to support the US when push comes to shove.

    January 27, 2012 at 6:30 am | Reply
  19. Philip


    January 27, 2012 at 9:08 am | Reply
  20. Carrie

    The fact that the USA continues to provide aid to more than less of the entire worlds countries, especially during this economic downturn is irresponsible, and completely insane. I know there are varies "reasons" whey thye do, but none good enough to justify putting the American peoples current quality of life at risk, and the quality of future americans lives in to question is UN-AMERICAN!! We continue to gicve away hundreds of millions of dollars to the rest of the world while our trillion dollar debt is all but crippling the very exsitance of alll Americans.ALL FORIEGN AID SHOULD BE SUSPENDED INDEFINATELY until; OUR TRILLION DOLLAR(S) DEBT IS PAID OFF, ALL AMERICANS GET A FAIR CHANCE AT SECONDARY EDUCATION that wont bankrupt them upon graduation, ALL AMERICANS GO TO BED without hundger, NO AMERICAN IS DENIED HEALTH CARE. Until then why do we continue to throw money at the rest of the world while americans here are homeless, hungry, uneducated, and uninsured!!???? It is the very definition of Insanity!

    January 27, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
    • Fred again

      Carrie? Did you read the article? It clearly says that MOST American's disagree with your far out view of America first view. You don't have to agree, We don't need an absolute agreement with everybody on everything. We are a democracy, You are clearly out voted. If you feel so strongly about this or that you are welcome to get out there and work on it – whatever seems important to you, But face facts, on this matter you would be outvoted. Most Americans are much more compassionate than you are. This is a good thing.

      May 22, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  21. RossTrex

    Nice Propaganda piece...

    This makes me feel like I am in the Soviet Union. Yes Comrade Foreign Aid is supported by the People of the Glorious Nation.

    January 27, 2012 at 8:32 pm | Reply
  22. thestranger

    according to current US census, 1 out of every 8 american and 1 out of every 4 kids do not know where their next meal will come from.

    This is why we should donate more money to other countries. Not like our people need food or anything. Just give it to those libyian dictators to give among their rebels

    January 28, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • Fred again

      OK this is just off the rails here. Nobody gave money to Gaddafi so he could give it to the rebels who wanted him out. Nothing in the article implied anything like that.

      May 22, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  23. 4commonsensenow

    My fathers parents were not rich, 7 kids to raise.They didnt anything to spare so to speak. Anyone, family or friend was always welcome at the dinner table on Sundays, no appointment needed. My grandfather said his aunt did the same for himself and his siblings growing up, after thier parents had both died. So thats the way I approach 'aid' in life. I dont have much, but will always help in a reasonable manner, according to the situation.Peace

    January 29, 2012 at 2:49 am | Reply
  24. Mariacecilia

    "We are brwnoriog from China to do nothing more than fund an escalating arms race."That resonates strongly with previous years spent on "arms race," and people will really recognize it.

    February 11, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Reply
  25. broadfall

    wow I thought 81 % of Americans supported foreign aid, at least according to this article. but in reality it looks like 99% oppose and 1% approve of it and the 1% once again are controlling the country. Like it or not the world looks at America as suckers and I think they are right, i feel like a sucker every time I write a check to the government for property tax. Here's an idea, use the trillion dollars we give to foreign countries to fix the deficit, and then let the banks we bailed out pay back their debt to the government, then we can give whats left over, to the other counties.

    May 31, 2012 at 9:56 am | Reply
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