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Generosity My Foot

I had set out to write a post answering the question: "If America is so wickedly selfish in pursuing its national interests, why does it often show such enormous generosity to people in need?" My intention had been, defying my own cynical bent, to assume that America does indeed show enormous generosity, and to then account for it by an examination of the ideology of self-interest and generosity that capitalism promotes. I still want to do that, because there's some fascinating issues to explore. But, as soon as I started doing a little research, I was forced to abandon my optimistic assumptions and fall back on cynicism--America shows no such enormous generosity, either on a national or a private level.

The first problem, of course, is that, even as officially conceived, US government aid is scarcely a matter of unselfish generosity, and in practice, it often becomes little more than a bribe to convince the recipient government to do us a favor. The USAID website explains its purpose this way: "The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States." Wow. Well, at least you can't accuse them of trying to cover their tracks--there it is right in the open: "We give people money to advance our foreign policy objectives, that is to say, USAID is a bribery agency." A little further on, USAID remembers to throw in some nice-sounding rhetoric--"The United States has a long history of extending a helping hand to those people overseas struggling to make a better life, recover from a disaster or live in a free and democratic country. It is this caring that stands as a hallmark of the United States around the world -- and shows the world our true character as a nation."

But then, it goes right back to the starting note: "U.S. foreign assistance has always had the twofold purpose of furthering America's foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world." Now, of course, if one really believed (as perhaps our poor benighted former president really did) that democracy and free markets were genuinely improving the lives of everyone in the developed world, then the alliance with "America's foreign policy interests" is not so troubling. But of course, a cursory knowledge of modern history will show that "expanding democracy and free markets" means, "Putting regimes in place that are friendly to the US and her interests, and opening doors for US businesses to make money in the country," both of which often have quite the opposite effect from "improving the lives of citizens."

Sure enough, statistics from the Center for Global Development (CGD) show that foreign aid from the developed world to the developing world, while always falling short of the agreed-upon target of 0.7% of GNP (hardly robust generosity), came closer to that target during the Cold War, when "foreign aid" was generally given to puppet regimes around the world to earn or ensure their loyalty against Communism. When the Cold War ended, such aid fell from 0.33% of GNP to 0.22% by 2001. Unsurprisingly, it has risen since as an informal means of buying allies in the "War on Terror."

Also unsurprisingly, less than one-quarter of foreign aid goes to the neediest countries, those classified as LDCs (Least Developed Countries).

Now, all this is simply to point out that foreign aid is more a political tool than an outpouring of generosity. But let's move on to address the claim that the US in particular deserves kudos for its generosity to poor countries. We often hear claims like "Americans are clearly the most generous on earth in public—but especially in private—giving.” But the CGD's numbers make mincemeat of these claims.

The problem with such claims, of course, is that they are based on absolute, not relative, numbers. Given that the US is vastly larger and in general more prosperous than other developed countries, absolute numbers distort the picture dramatically. As it turns out, the US falls more dramatically short of the 0.7% target than most other developed nations, mustering only about 0.18%. Indeed, the only countries that exceed the target are the "wicked socialist" countries of Northern Europe--the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (countries that are also rather less prone to be using the aid money as a foreign policy tool). But, many will protest, this is all public money; the US private sector is much more generous! Relative to its public sector, the US private sector does do better than most other developed countries, but still, the overall giving per person from the US is abysmal. The CGD concludes, “The US gives 13c/day/person in government aid….American’s private giving—another 5c/day—is high by international standards but does not close the gap with most other rich countries. Norway gives $1.02/day in public aid and 24c/day in private aid.” Wowsers.

This report also offers two different attempts to take account of all the factors in public and private foreign aid and to rank developed countries accordingly. Of the 21 countries, one methodology ranks the US 13th; another 19th. In other words, even by the crooked standards of foreign aid contributions, the US is among the least generous developed countries in the world when it comes to helping the world's poor.

Now, in my next post, I'll return to the theme I had hoped to expound here: how the ideology of capitalism can explain the contradictions we see between America's self-interested foreign policy and the limited generosity we do see from her.


What happened to shorter blog posts? I'll get around to this eventually (I hope) but I actually liked the shorter stuff.

January 21, 2010 at 12:35 AM  

That's under a thousand words! That is short! If you want tiny post-lets without substance, go to Twitter!

(If you want tiny post-lets with substance, go to Dr. Leithart's blog.)

January 21, 2010 at 1:39 AM  

I concur. This is short.

Or perhaps you're referring to Brad's series of posts on Stark, which I guess is sort of like one really-really-long blogpost.

January 22, 2010 at 5:28 PM  

Brad, I agree with Melissa; and I add that you seem to have too much time on your hands.
With regards to your post, I have this to say; first, you seem to assume that since there are purposes to foreign aid other than pure egalitarianism, that the American Federal government is therefore evil. Non sequitur. First of all, I would point you to works written on gift-giving such as those by Seneca, St. Thomas Aquinas, and various 20th century philosophers, which show that gift-giving ALWAYS has some assumption of reciprocity contained in it. Second - and this is the most important thing I have to say - your argument goes like this: "American foreign aid promotes American interests; ergo, foreign aid is vile." In other words, if the United States gives a schoolboy a computer or soccer ball in the hopes that he will never, ever, strap bombs to his body and blow up himself and whoever happens to be standing near him, American is therefore selfish and tyrannical. Shame on us. Third, there is a small but vocal minority in our land - namely, the ultra-conservatives - who would really like it if we did not give away any money at all; their belief is that the federal government ought to be more minimalistic than the art of Frank Stella. Now, with all due respect, I have to point out that this seems to be somewhat the background that you come from; if your current vehemence is a reaction against that, I would have to recommend that you find a more constructive way of dealing with your guilt for having been wrong. Fourth; I will be the first to agree with you that it was wrong to support dictators during the Cold War, and I am immensely relieved that - though there is still work to be done - we are moving away from that. At the same time, I would have to point out that if a method is wrong, that does not ALWAYS mean that the goal one was aiming for was in itself wrong. The simple fact that the British government murdered a lot of Jesuit missionaries does not - in and of itself - make Anglicanism a bad thing. Finally, on personal giving. If Americans are truly not doing their part when the hat is passed around, then I will be the first to agree that we need to repent, and avoid such sin in the future. If any among us wants to be perfect, he ought to sell all that he has and give to the poor. And throughout the history of Christianity, many - such as St. Francis - have done just that. However, before I put to much stock in the report you quote, two important facts must be noted. First, Americans do a lot of charitable giving through their religious bodies - giving which is usually not noted in these types of studies. In Scandinavia, people fund the churches through their taxes. Also, because America is less socialized than those states, Americans are more likely to give to worthy causes within our own shores, such as local charities and artistic organizations; this may explain some of the discrepancy.

January 25, 2010 at 2:59 AM  

Thanks for the interaction. Don't forget, by the way, that I came to this post determined to assume the best about US foreign aid. But, for your objections:
1) As far as gift-giving, I'm completely with you on that. I just wrote a paper on it last term, actually, and I appreciated Aquinas a great deal. I absolutely agree that gift-giving is not, should not be, and cannot be disinterested. That being the case, however, it still remains to be asked: a) is my self-interest subordinated to the other's interest, rather than paramount in the exchange? If so, there's a problem. And b) what interest of mine am I seeking to advance? If it is wrong or is harmful to others, there's a problem.

Which leads to your second point--the problem here is a difference of assumption. I'm assuming that most American interests are not mutually-beneficial, but self-beneficial. They're not, "Here's a gift of which not only you, but all of us will share in the benefits" but "Here's a gift that will make you do things our way to your own detriment." So, if America's interests really are godly interests, then by all means, we should approve of foreign aid that advances them, as long as it benefits the recipients first and foremost. I just don't see that happening in a lot of cases.

Third, I don't really think that has much to do with this. I don't see eye-to-eye with that species of conservatism anymore, but mainly because of the blind faith they put in the "free market," which is no more intelligent than the blind faith leftists put int he government. So I don't really see how that's linked to this post.

Fourth, if so, I'm glad. I'm just skeptical that things have changed all that much. Plus, we have to take serious responsibility for, and repent publicly for, recent sins like that. If the US really has changed, and really is sorry, then it should tell the world that, tell Nicaragua that, tell El Salvador that, tell Iran that, etc.

Finally, thanks for those thoughts. That may indeed account for some of the discrepancy. Nevertheless, the point remains that we hardly need to be complacently patting ourselves on the back for being "the most generous nation."

January 28, 2010 at 10:17 AM  

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