The World's Most Generous Misers
by Ben Somberg
Extra, Oct 2005 - Fairness and
Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
In March 1997, a joint poll by the Washington
Post, Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked
Americans which area of federal expenditure they thought was the
Was it Social Security (which actually
constituted about a quarter of the budget)? Medicare? Military
spending? Sixty-four percent of respondents said it was foreign
aid-when in reality foreign aid made up only about 1 percent of
total outlays (Washington Post, 3/29/97).
Today, Americans think about 20 percent
of the federal budget goes toward foreign aid. When told the actual
figure for U.S. foreign aid giving (about 1.6 percent of the discretionary
budget), most respondents said they did not believe the number
was the full amount (Program on International Policy Attitudes,
It's no wonder that most Americans think
they live in an extremely generous nation: Media reports often
quote government officials pointing out that their country is
the largest overall aid donor, and the biggest donor of humanitarian
aid. But what reporters too often fail to explain is how big the
U.S. economy is-more than twice the size of Japan's, the second
largest, and about as big as economies number 3-10 combined. Considered
as a portion of the nation's economy, or of its federal expenditures,
the U.S. is actually among the smallest donors of international
aid among the world's developed countries.
The Development Assistance Committee of
the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compiles
statistics on how much Official Development Assistance the world's
22 wealthiest countries give each year. The organization's numbers
show that as a portion of Gross National Income (roughly equivalent
to GDP), the U.S. now ranks second-to-last in giving, at 0.16
percent. (In 2004, Italy dropped into last place below the U.S.)
The U.S. also gives much less than what
the industrialized countries pledged to give at the 1992 Rio Conference,
which was 0.7 percent of their GDP. U.S. development aid, at 0.16
percent of GDP, represents less than one-quarter of this promise.
While foreign aid giving is hardly the
only issue, domestic or international, on which Americans hold
distinctly incorrect beliefs-misperceptions around the circumstances
of the Iraq War are another good recent example-the disparity
between the public's perception and the truth in this case is
abnormally large. A look at media coverage of U.S. foreign aid
giving in the days after the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of
December 26, 2004 helps reveal why Americans might think they're
more generous than they are.
"Known for generosity"
Coverage of the Bush administration's
pledges of aid to Asian nations battered by the tsunami failed
to give context to the amounts mentioned, painting the U.S. in
a charitable light. The day after the tsunami, the U.S. pledged
$15 million in aid; a day later, the total was $35 million. After
widespread criticism, the administration upped its pledge three
days later to $350 million. The media almost always compared these
numbers to the total aid pledges of other countries, not looking
at how they ranked as a fraction of the nations' economies. The
$350 million pledge, therefore, was the "largest contribution"
at the time (CNN.com, 1/1/05).
The administration's line regarding aid
giving was exemplified by Colin Powell's words in the days after
the tsunami (ABC's Nightline, 12/30/04):
"We are the most generous nation
on the face of the Earth. Now, if you measure it as a percentage
of GDP, you can make the case that we're not as high as others.
But if you measure it as actual money going out the door to help
people, we are the most generous nation on the face of the Earth."
Andrew Nations, head of the U.S. Agency
for International Development, similarly said that "we've
never accepted the notion" that aid comparisons by national
wealth are relevant (Fox News Channel, 12/29/04): Our GNP dwarves
all other countries. Our economy grows much faster. Japan's economy
has basically been not growing much over the last decade. And
the Europeans have not grown that much, certainly in comparison
to the United States. So what some people have done is to use
the one indicator that makes us look bad to argue this. And I
have to say it is ridiculous.
Fox host Chris Wallace at the end of his
interview thanked Nations for "giving us a perspective, a
little bit of a reality check on all of this."
Establishing foreign aid giving standards
based on the size of a nation's economy is no newfangled idea,
though; it was in 1970, after all, that the U.N. General Assembly
first supported the standard of developed nations giving 0.7 percent
of their GDP towards non-military foreign aid (a percentage that
the United States has never come close to reaching). Generosity
that isn't measured based on ability to give would inevitably
paint smaller countries as stingy-unless they gave an astronomical
percentage of their incomes.
NPR correspondent (and Fox in-house "liberal")
Juan Williams, appearing just minutes after Nations (12/29/04),
also disputed criticisms that U.S. humanitarian efforts are only
a tiny portion of GDP: "That notion, I think, is misplaced,
because I think our Gross Domestic Product is just so much larger
and continues to grow." In other words, it somehow isn't
fair to expect the U.S. to contribute the same percentage as other
countries because the U.S. is so much wealthier.
"Private giving is tremendous"
Williams continued with another standard
defense of American generosity: "And so it doesn't properly
represent the degree of largess and philanthropy that takes place.
Either if you consider just government, or if you consider, in
addition, an even larger sector, the private sector. Private giving
is tremendous in this country."
American private giving during the tsunami
crisis was significant, indeed; one month after the tsunami, it
was over $400 million, outpacing the U.S. government pledge of
$350 million. But just as with government donations, the private
giving of Americans was smaller in proportional terms than that
of most Western European and Scandinavian countries. That fact
didn't slow down NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams (1/7/05),
who said that Americans were "proving all over again why
they are known worldwide for their generosity." Williams
made no comment about the generosity of, say, the British or Germans,
each of whom sent far more money, per capita, in both private
and government donations.
When George W. Bush spoke of individual
donations and the "good heart of the American people,"
ABC's Peter Jennings (1/3/05) agreed that Bush was "saying
what almost all Americans will surely believe, that Americans
are innately generous at times of crisis." Whether or not
such beliefs reflect reality was not addressed.
While exact figures are impossible to
come by, the highest estimates from recent years put individual
U.S. donations to overseas aid at 0.16 percent of national income,
according to the Center for Global Development's Steven Radelet.
(More conservative estimates suggest that this number may actually
be as low as 0.03 percent; an OECD estimate put the number at
0.06 percent.) Add the optimistic 0.16 percent estimate to the
0.16 percent of national income in government donations and you
reach a combined 0.32 percent of national income-which is still
less than the governmental aid alone of roughly half of the world's
When it came to comparing the tsunami
relief to aid in other humanitarian disasters, ABC's George Stephanopoulos
(1/2/05) briefly stood out from the field. After Kofi Annan noted
in an interview that international donations in just one week
had eclipsed those for all other humanitarian appeals in 2004,
Stephanopoulos replied, "That would suggest that the world
had not done enough for these other disasters."
"We call them the orphaned disasters,"
Annan replied. "They are not in the headlines. They are not
on TV. And they are ignored and overlooked, whether it's northern
Uganda or elsewhere. You take the Congo, eastern Congo, thousands
of people die every month." With that said, Stephanopoulos
returned to talk of the tsunami.
Contrasts in print
Perhaps the best discussion of tsunami
aid was provided by the Boston Globe's Charles Senott (12/31/04),
who wrote in his second sentence that "both on a per capita
basis and as a percentage of the nation's wealth, America's emergency
relief in Asia and development aid to poor countries actually
ranks at the bottom of the list of developed nations, some of
the world's top economists and analysts of international development
aid said yesterday."
The Globe's honest analysis helped highlight
the lack of context common in tsunami coverage elsewhere in the
print media. A USA Today report on American giving (1/7/05) noted
that "per capita, citizens in some other countries are giving
more than Americans are"-but not until the last paragraph
of the article. Meanwhile the paper editorialized (1/4/05) that
Bush's pledge of $350 million-a little more than a dollar per
citizen-"should silence critics who said the world's wealthiest
nation was being stingy."
The Washington Post (1/2/05) was similarly
impressed in its news pages with the $350 million pledge, concluding
that "the president has assumed a leadership role in the
global relief, rescue and rebuilding effort and quieted his critics."
The Post had nothing to say about the "leadership role"
of the leaders of European nations that were giving sums that
represented far larger portions of their nations' economies.
In the New York Times, the administration's
logic sometimes went unchallenged as well. "We are by far
the largest donor" of disaster relief, the paper quoted Natsios
(12/30/04). "No one even comes close to us." His statement
was technically true at the time, but the article provided no
information about how this ranked the U.S. giving as a portion
When the Bush administration increased
its aid pledge to $350 million, the Times (1/1/05) wrote: "With
the newly announced commitment, the United States moves from the
middle of the pack of countries that have announced aid to the
region to the top. The $350 million is more than three times the
amount committed by Britain." The article didn't mention
that the U.S. has five times Britain's population and six times
On the op-ed page, the Times (1/4/05)
gave space to Carol Adelman of the Hudson Institute to defend
American aid giving. She claimed that looking only at public giving
made Europeans "appear generous": "Norway ranks
first in allocating 0.92 percent of its gross national income
to foreign aid. But Norway's $2 billion of yearly aid is less
than what American companies alone give."
Given that Norway's economy is less than
2 percent that of the U.S., it's not surprising that its total
foreign aid budget is not large in absolute terms. But it's not
true that Americans are privately more generous than Norwegians:
Norway's per capita private aid contributions are almost five
times the U.S.'s, according to the Center for Global Development
The Times' editorial page (12/30/04) did
give a context to U.S. aid giving, both for the tsunami disaster
and for development in general, leading the page to call the U.S.
"stingy." Observing the difference between how Americans
view their aid-giving and the reality, it said that "Bush
administration officials help create that perception gap."
Selective reporting contributes as well.
Ben Somberg is a former FAIR intern.
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