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.
The Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compiles statistics on how much Official Development Assistance the world’s 22 wealthiest countries give each year. The organization’s numbers show that as a portion of Gross National Income (roughly equivalent to GDP), the U.S. now ranks second-to-last in giving, at 0.16 percent. (In 2004, Italy dropped into last place below the U.S.)
The U.S. also gives much less than what the industrialized countries pledged to give at the 1992 Rio Conference, which was 0.7 percent of their GDP. U.S. development aid, at 0.16 percent of GDP, represents less than one-quarter of this promise.
While foreign aid giving is hardly the only issue, domestic or international, on which Americans hold distinctly incorrect beliefs—misperceptions around the circumstances of the Iraq War are another good recent example—the disparity between the public’s perception and the truth in this case is abnormally large. A look at media coverage of U.S. foreign aid giving in the days after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of December 26, 2004 helps reveal why Americans might think they’re more generous than they are.
“Known for generosity”
Coverage of the Bush administration’s pledges of aid to Asian nations battered by the tsunami failed to give context to the amounts mentioned, painting the U.S. in a charitable light. The day after the tsunami, the U.S. pledged $15 million in aid; a day later, the total was $35 million. After widespread criticism, the administration upped its pledge three days later to $350 million. The media almost always compared these numbers to the total aid pledges of other countries, not looking at how they ranked as a fraction of the nations’ economies. The $350 million pledge, therefore, was the “largest contribution” at the time (CNN.com, 1/1/05).
The administration’s line regarding aid giving was exemplified by Colin Powell’s words in the days after the tsunami (ABC’s Nightline, 12/30/04): “We are the most generous nation on the face of the Earth. Now, if you measure it as a percentage of GDP, you can make the case that we’re not as high as others. But if you measure it as actual money going out the door to help people, we are the most generous nation on the face of the Earth.”
Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, similarly said that “we’ve never accepted the notion” that aid comparisons by national wealth are relevant (Fox News Channel, 12/29/04):
Fox host Chris Wallace at the end of his interview thanked Natsios for “giving us a perspective, a little bit of a reality check on all of this.”
Establishing foreign aid giving standards based on the size of a nation’s economy is no newfangled idea, though; it was in 1970, after all, that the U.N. General Assembly first supported the standard of developed nations giving 0.7 percent of their GDP towards non-military foreign aid (a percentage that the United States has never come close to reaching). Generosity that isn’t measured based on ability to give would inevitably paint smaller countries as stingy—unless they gave an astronomical percentage of their incomes.
NPR correspondent (and Fox in-house “liberal”) Juan Williams, appearing just minutes after Natsios (12/29/04), also disputed criticisms that U.S. humanitarian efforts are only a tiny portion of GDP: “That notion, I think, is misplaced, because I think our Gross Domestic Product is just so much larger and continues to grow.” In other words, it somehow isn’t fair to expect the U.S. to contribute the same percentage as other countries—because the U.S. is so much wealthier.
“Private giving is tremendous”
Williams continued with another standard defense of American generosity: “And so it doesn’t properly represent the degree of largess and philanthropy that takes place. Either if you consider just government, or if you consider, in addition, an even larger sector, the private sector. Private giving is tremendous in this country.”
American private giving during the tsunami crisis was significant, indeed; one month after the tsunami, it was over $400 million, outpacing the U.S. government pledge of $350 million. But just as with government donations, the private giving of Americans was smaller in proportional terms than that of most Western European and Scandinavian countries. That fact didn’t slow down NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (1/7/05), who said that Americans were “proving all over again why they are known worldwide for their generosity.” Williams made no comment about the generosity of, say, the British or Germans, each of whom sent far more money, per capita, in both private and government donations.
When George W. Bush spoke of individual donations and the “good heart of the American people,” ABC’s Peter Jennings (1/3/05) agreed that Bush was “saying what almost all Americans will surely believe, that Americans are innately generous at times of crisis.” Whether or not such beliefs reflect reality was not addressed.
While exact figures are impossible to come by, the highest estimates from recent years put individual U.S. donations to overseas aid at 0.16 percent of national income, according to the Center for Global Development’s Steven Radelet. (More conservative estimates suggest that this number may actually be as low as 0.03 percent; an OECD estimate put the number at 0.06 percent.) Add the optimistic 0.16 percent estimate to the 0.16 percent of national income in government donations and you reach a combined 0.32 percent of national income—which is still less than the governmental aid alone of roughly half of the world’s wealthiest nations.
When it came to comparing the tsunami relief to aid in other humanitarian disasters, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos (1/2/05) briefly stood out from the field. After Kofi Annan noted in an interview that international donations in just one week had eclipsed those for all other humanitarian appeals in 2004, Stephanopoulos replied, “That would suggest that the world had not done enough for these other disasters.”
“We call them the orphaned disasters,” Annan replied. “They are not in the headlines. They are not on TV. And they are ignored and overlooked, whether it’s northern Uganda or elsewhere. You take the Congo, eastern Congo, thousands of people die every month.” With that said, Stephanopoulos returned to talk of the tsunami.
Contrasts in print
Perhaps the best discussion of tsunami aid was provided by the Boston Globe’s Charles Sennott (12/31/04), who wrote in his second sentence that “both on a per capita basis and as a percentage of the nation’s wealth, America’s emergency relief in Asia and development aid to poor countries actually ranks at the bottom of the list of developed nations, some of the world’s top economists and analysts of international development aid said yesterday.”
The Globe’s honest analysis helped highlight the lack of context common in tsunami coverage elsewhere in the print media. A USA Today report on American giving (1/7/05) noted that “per capita, citizens in some other countries are giving more than Americans are”—but not until the last paragraph of the article. Meanwhile the paper editorialized (1/4/05) that Bush’s pledge of $350 million—a little more than a dollar per citizen—“should silence critics who said the world’s wealthiest nation was being stingy.”
The Washington Post (1/2/05) was similarly impressed in its news pages with the $350 million pledge, concluding that “the president has assumed a leadership role in the global relief, rescue and rebuilding effort and quieted his critics.” The Post had nothing to say about the “leadership role” of the leaders of European nations that were giving sums that represented far larger portions of their nations’ economies.
In the New York Times, the administration’s logic sometimes went unchallenged as well. “We are by far the largest donor’’ of disaster relief, the paper quoted Natsios (12/30/04). “No one even comes close to us.’’ His statement was technically true at the time, but the article provided no information about how this ranked the U.S. giving as a portion of GDP.
When the Bush administration increased its aid pledge to $350 million, the Times (1/1/05) wrote: “With the newly announced commitment, the United States moves from the middle of the pack of countries that have announced aid to the region to the top. The $350 million is more than three times the amount committed by Britain.” The article didn’t mention that the U.S. has five times Britain’s population and six times its GDP.
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).
The Times’ editorial page (12/30/04) did give a context to U.S. aid giving, both for the tsunami disaster and for development in general, leading the page to call the U.S. “stingy.” Observing the difference between how Americans view their aid-giving and the reality, it said that “Bush administration officials help create that perception gap.” Selective reporting contributes as well.
Coverage of foreign aid is as notable for what it doesn't say as for what is does. Areas the media usually don't examine include:
- Debt Payments. Many aid recipients in the developing world are burdened by debt payments to the wealthy nations and institutions, often for loans taken out decades earlier by dictatorial regimes that squandered the money. While the developing world receives about $80 billion in aid each year, it paysthe developed world about $200 billion; it is still uncertain how much of that will be relieved.
- Pledges are just pledges.George W. Bush's Millennium Challenge Account—announced in March 2002 with great fanfare—hasn't disbursed a dollar yet. After the 2003 Iran earthquake, many nations only delivered a fraction of the aid they had initially pledged. The media should treat pledges as what they are: promises that may or may not be kept.
- Adjusting for inflation. When the New York Times and Washington Post reported on George W. Bush's announcement of the Millennium Challenge Account (3/15/02), the articles said the pledge represented a 14 percent increase in U.S. aid flows, but with inflation factored in, it was only a 7 percent increase (Economic Reporting Review, 3/18/02).