Foreign aid: threat or menace?
January 17, 2006 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Foreign aid: threat or menace? Help me track down this possibly apocryphal story.

I heard or read this years ago: A poll was taken about foreign aid. Most people said less should be spent on it. Then they asked how much the US currently spends on foreign aid? Average estimate was 15%. Then they asked how much should be spent? Average answer was 5%. The kicker is that actual spending on foreign aid is about 1%.
posted by richg to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Now, you have now heard from each of us that only one penny of every dollar from the federal budget goes for these policies. I think we repeat that all the time because if you were to ask the average American how much goes for these kinds of things, they tell you -- I've tried this -- 25 percent, 30 percent or 10 percent. And they're stunned when you say only less than one percent or one penny. So we are repeating that and also repeating that that penny can make a huge difference.

No cite for the poll though. (I heard this too, and remembered the "one penny of every dollar" line.)
posted by Brian James at 5:26 PM on January 17, 2006

I recently had the chance to ask someone from the State Department this very questions. Their foreign aid budget is indeed 1%. That doesn't include anything that would come from elsewhere in the government, though...say the Department of Defense for example.
posted by youcancallmeal at 5:39 PM on January 17, 2006

According to a blurb about Jeffrey Sach's book The End of Poverty, it's 0.14% of GNP.
posted by Gyan at 5:45 PM on January 17, 2006

I also learned that it's 1% of the federal budget.

But I mainly want to point out that this kind of poll is flawed. For example, let's say you ask 20 people what the foreign aid budget is, and 10 out of 20 correctly say 1%, 5 of 20 say 0.001%, and 5 of 20 say 25%. Then your average is a bit more than 13.5%. Even though, most people guessed the budget correctly and the same number of people grossly underguessed as much as overguessed.

Basically, a few overguessers skew the results. If I said 50% of our budget goes to foreign aid, it would require 49 people guessing ZERO% to balance it back to 1%.
posted by lpctstr; at 6:11 PM on January 17, 2006

The official OECD calculations assesses US official development aid as 0.16% of GNI in 2004 [linky, pdf].
posted by AwkwardPause at 6:36 PM on January 17, 2006

Best answer: lpc, it would be more normal for the poll to give you a multiple choice, as "a) 1%; b) 5%; c) 10%; d) 25%".

Americans also appear to overestimate how much aid goes to Africa as a percentage of the total foreign aid budget and the portion of foreign aid they propose devoting to Africa is substantially higher than the actual portion. -- here, with a history of various polls on the topic going back to the 90s.

One such poll by PIPA [pdf]. It looks like a 1995 PIPA study -- including aggregation of other polls and new polls -- is the main source of the cited idea. The study was updated in 2003.
posted by dhartung at 7:49 PM on January 17, 2006

Response by poster: dhartung, you have found it - thank you! Page 3 of the
poll by PIPA
[pdf] that you cited has it right there.
posted by richg at 9:00 PM on January 17, 2006

richg -- you may have heard the stat originally from this episode of The West Wing.
posted by junkbox at 6:16 AM on January 18, 2006

Regardless of possible deficiencies in the poll technique, the point is clearly (I think) true: most Americans would be appalled at how little foreign aid the richest country in the world provides if they had the facts clearly presented. But it's in too many people's interest to whip up resentment by muddying the facts.
posted by languagehat at 6:50 AM on January 18, 2006

rumor on the street is that we still provide more foreign aid in absolute terms than any other country (we are an 800 lb economic gorilla), but i'd be interested to see how the US's percentage compares to other countries, esp when adjusted for our mega-low taxation rate.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:43 AM on January 18, 2006

this article sounds a little defensive, but hey, who can't trust the christian science monitor? it's interesting that GDP spent on defense is still only 3-4%, and i'm sure none of the interviewees could guess that one, either.
posted by soma lkzx at 7:57 AM on January 18, 2006

The US is approximately 30-35% of the gross global economy, which is reflected in our UN dues and the dispute over them (we'd rather pay less than 25%). An argument could be made that the US should provide 30-35% of overall international financial assistance, or even more.

Counter-arguments could be made that the existence of institutions such as the World Bank offset some of that fiduciary responsibility.
posted by dhartung at 3:03 PM on January 18, 2006

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