Misconceptions about foreign aid

At the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Jason Kuznicki points out some persistent public misconceptions about the amount the U.S. spends on foreign aid:

Years ago, I read that Americans on average thought we spent something like a quarter of our budget on foreign aid. It was a ridiculous overestimate, both then and now, and I figured the number of misinformed people would have to have declined since then. Hasn’t American ignorance on this very subject become sort of proverbial?

Apparently not. As of last month, Americans still say that we spend about 25% on foreign aid. Incredibly, the average suggestion is to lower foreign aid to a mere 10% of our budget.

The real amount we spend on foreign aid? 0.6%.

Peter Singer has been pointing this out for years in his various writings about our obligations to help the very poorest people in the world. I remember that during the 2008 Vice Presidential debate, when the question was asked what spending might need to be cut to reduce the federal deficit, then-Senator Biden specifically mentioned foreign aid, trading on this very misperception.

It should also be pointed out that “foreign aid” includes stuff that has little or nothing to do with lifting people out of poverty and much to do with U.S. geopolitical interests. Historically, the largest recipients have been Israel and Egypt, along with certain Latin American countries whose governments have been enlisted in the war on drugs. More recently, countries associated with the “war on terror” (e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan) have been major recipients. (See here for an overview of U.S. foreign aid programs and policy.)

The reality calls into question the common assumption that the U.S. is pouring massive amounts of anti-poverty aid into poor countries and that the persistence of poverty shows that “aid doesn’t work.” As Singer points out most recently in his book The Life You Can Save (which I blogged a fair bit about), there is still plenty of low-hanging fruit where well-targeted aid programs can make huge differences in people’s lives.

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