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.