Foreign Aid Is Not Optional

The current budget proposed by President George W. Bush has paltry aid for needy nations around the world. His parsimony stems, in part, from the American public’s misunderstanding about giving foreign aid.

There are two reasons the U.S. does not spend more money on foreign aid. First, the Americans have huge misconceptions about how much money is spent. Second, the public is unclear about what it is spent on. The Program on International Policy Attitudes conducted a study last year which illustrates the first point. First, when asked what percent of U.S. budget goes to aid, the majority of respondents guessed 20 percent, when the reality is less than 1 percent. Asked what percentage of total international aid from rich to poor countries that the U.S. contributes, the majority of people guessed 33 percent but the reality is only 16 percent.

Such ignorance is shocking given the dire economic situation of billions of people around the world. On Jan. 18, according to the London Guardian, a senior World Bank economist announced the world’s wealthiest 50 million people earn as much money as the poorest 2.7 billion. In other words, the richest 1 percent of the human population makes as much money as the poorest 57 percent.

It’s not surprising that when most people hear such figures they shrug and ask what they can do about them. Statistics such as these have become commonplace in the U.S. as the U.N. and other international organizations come up with appeals for funding from the richest government in the world. You have probably also heard that about half the world’s population, or three billion people, live on less than $2 a day.

Last year, the U.S. gave a paltry total of $16.2 billion in foreign aid, and that’s including $1.2 billion in anti-terrorism funding. The baseline budget for 2002 is $15.4 billion, with room to authorize more. Still, when one considers that we are set to spend $379 billion on the military this year, $16 billion is peanuts. Traditionally, a nation’s foreign aid contributions are measured as a percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP). The most successful and far-reaching foreign assistance the U.S. has ever given was the Marshall Plan following WWII. During this time, foreign aid accounted for about 15 percent of our GDP.

In contrast, today’s total foreign aid by the U.S. is teetering at about 0.1 percent of GDP, which puts us in last place among the world’s 22 richest nations. Portugal, Greece and New Zealand all put in double the amount we do in relation to their GDPs, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In first place is Denmark, which is ten times as generous as we are and gave away 1.06 percent of its GDP in 2000.

Nevertheless, Americans are often wary of foreign aid because they worry it will end up in the hands of corrupt rulers rather than going to the people who really need it. The U.S. knows about such corruption and uses foreign aid to pay off backwards governments rather than help oppressed people. Congress has been paying off countries like Jordan and Egypt for years—Pakistan just got a healthy $600 million grant last year for cooperating with our anti-bin Laden efforts. However, foreign aid should serve a more noble purpose than buying the loyalties of autocratic governments.

If Bush cut funding to the War on Drugs, missile defense, wasteful military spending and corporate subsidies, the budget would be balanced and we would have money left over to increase foreign aid substantially.

Foreign aid is extremely effective in spurring development, solving health problems, improving infrastructure and protecting freedom and democracy around the world. We must pay off our debt to the U.N. ($871 million at the end of 2001) and make a substantial contribution to the World AIDS Fund, which will need $10 billion per year in order to fight the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Despite Republican rhetoric, a Pew poll from last year found that 92 percent of Americans favor strengthening the U.N.

Bush’s budget cuts aid to sub-Saharan Africa for fiscal 2003 from $100 million to $77 million. That compares with $448 million for Jordan. While giving aid to Jordan might be necessary to maintain (some) peace in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa deserves much more attention and funding than it currently receives.

A recent World Health Organization report provides an example of cheap but important foreign aid help, which would create a program to fight easily preventable diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. The suggested program would be funded directly by the richest nations, at a cost of about 0.1 percent (our current aid spending) of GDP, and it would save at least eight million lives per year, or 10 times as many lives as the U.S. has lost in all its wars, ever.

Nicholas F. B. Smyth ’05, a Crimson editor, is a first-year in Wigglesworth Hall.