Getting Americans To Understand Foreign Aid

Most Americans don’t really understand what foreign aid is all about nor how much it costs.

Real quick:

  1. Foreign aid is designed to promote US interests from humanitarian to economic to political to security.
    1. That means, we — as Americans — don’t like to see people starving and suffering (humanitarian).
    2. We want other countries to prosper so they can buy our products and send visitors to our country. (economic)
    3. We need allies in the world for hundreds of complicated issues. Recipients of foreign aid might more receptive to American overtures if we are seen as a friend. (political)
    4. Prosperous, stable and economically viable countries are not breeding grounds for illegal immigrants, gang members or terrorists. (security)
  2. Foreign aid is not expensive
    1. Recent Pew survey showed 33 percent of American people thought foreign aid was the most expensive part of the US budget. (26 percent said interest on the debt, 20 percent said Social Security and 4 percent sais transportation.)
    2. Real numbers are that Social Security accounts for 17 TIMES the amount spent on foreign aid.
    3. Foreign aid accounts for less than 1 percent of the US budget

Part of the problem is the fact that the State Department and the US Agency for International Development do a lousy job of explaining things.

Fortunately, as Daniel Altman points out in Foreign Policy, there is a way to address that problem. But only if the State Department gets smart about the terms it uses and its public outreach activities.

Altman says the latest Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review being written at State could go a long way to improving how foreign aid is seen and perceived.

While Altman uses a rather crass cost-benefit analysis, his point is valid.

The cost of saving a child in Guatemala from a deadly case of malaria might be about $16, but that child might buy close to $100 a year in American goods and services over the course of his or her working life. By paying for malaria treatments in Guatemala, the U.S. government would become a machine for transforming $16 worth of American output today into $100 a year of American output 15 or 20 years down the road. At a discount rate of, say, 5 percent a year, the total return would be roughly 6,000 percent.

The low-cost nature of US development aid does have a long-term and wide-reaching impact on the U.S. domestic market as well as its international security. (If that same Guatemalan kid gets a decent job, there will be less incentive to go to the United States illegally. Likewise, that same kid will not be tempted to join a gang in order to make ends meet.)

A lot of the lack of understanding about how foreign aid works and how much it costs can be laid at the feet of the US agencies. But a whole lot of blame can also be laid at the feet of the US media.

If reporters spent a little more time on stories — granted, a luxury most of us don’t have — they could put the programs into context for readers/viewers/listeners. Additional stories could be generated that show the connection between US aid and US domestic benefits.

Maybe — and here I might jest be a cock-eyed optimist — once there is enough general information about how much US development aid costs and its benefits, then maybe, just maybe, some reporters might have the guts to call to task the Congress-critters who think the way to balance the budget is to cut foreign aid.

On the issue of cutting foreign aid to balance the budget, I like Neil De Grasse Tyson’s response to proposed cuts to NASA and space exploration: [Paraphrasing here] Cutting the NASA budget to balance the budget is like deleting a couple of WORD documents instead of many of the JPEG files in an effort to free up space on your hard drive.

[FYI, the NASA budget is also just around 1 percent of the federal budget.]

The NASA and foreign aid money brings in much larger benefits than the outlay. The facts are there, people are just not getting them.


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