How much would you guess the United States spends on foreign aid?
Go ahead! Take a guess.
If you guessed 25%, which is what the Washington Times reported most Americans thought to be spend on foreign aid in 2011, you would still believe that we spent less than a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The survey, which was a random selection of 1,205 adults ages 18 and older across the United States, found that the average American believed that 27% of the budget was allotted for foreign aid spending in 2012.
The reality of aid spending in the United States is actually staggeringly less. The U.S government spends around 1% of the budget on aid, not including projects in Afghanistan and Iraq (this is included in defense spending). This is a far cry from commitments mad in 1970, and almost every major summit since.
In 1970, the world’s rich countries agreed to give 0.7% of their GNI (Gross National Income) as official international development aid, annually. Since that time, despite billions given each year, rich nations have rarely met their actual promised targets. The U.S. is often the largest donor in dollar terms, but ranks amongst the lowest in terms of meeting the stated 0.7% target. Furthermore, spending is still a fraction of the most recent commitment made in 2009 at the G8 in L'Aquila, which focused on lifting 50 million people out of hunger through farming programs.
It is easy to see why this misconception about aid spending may be prevalent in the United States. In a quick Google search with the term “aid pledges by the U.S.”, a slew of contradictory and confusing information emerges. A majority of the top ten search results are articles about emergency funding and disaster relief for countries like Libya, Somalia and the Sahel region. With the numbers that are bandied around, 100M here and 6M there, it appears that we’re cumulatively spending our share.
To change this perception, more notice must be given to sustainable programs that are pulling people out of poverty with agricultural training and saving lives with healthcare for women and families. Solutions must be highlighted that don’t revolve around sending bags of rice, that once eaten, leave local economies depressed and people without the skills to feed themselves.
There is hope, however, that attitudes regarding aid can change with the dissemination of correct information. For example, when survey respondents were told that only about one percent of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid, the number of respondents who believed too little is spent on aid more than double. They even recognize the lack of media coverage. The Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that roughly half of Americans (52%) said the news media spends too little time covering global health issues, up from 41 percent in 2010.
Additionally, global health aid has the potential to be relatively popular, even if foreign aid is not. Fifty four percent of Americans say the government is spending too much on foreign aid, whereas only 21% say we are spending too much to improve health for people in developing countries. This means that people are more inclined to approve of foreign aid spending if there is a comprehendible purpose. Most Americans ranked basic needs such as clean water and reducing hunger, along with improving children’s health, as top priorities.
The study from the Kaiser Family Foundation provides us with a crucial lesson: that there is a massive opportunity to change American opinion of foreign aid spending through advocacy and education efforts. The problem is not that Americans believe that the United States shouldn’t play a role in aiding global programs, rather there is a lack of understand about how much and where the money is going.
Drew Altman, Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO, captured this perfectly in a column he wrote on the findings:
"One of the strongest predictors of support was the belief that aid would make a difference. This means that documenting the impact of assistance and then communicating that to opinion leaders and the public is absolutely critical for advocates of foreign aid and global health."
Will you step to this challenge?