Thursday, January 06, 2005

Is U.S. foreign aid adequate?

I left some comments yesterday at Sound and Fury in response to Dan's posts about U.S. generosity and Dan was kind enough to respond with a whole post, so let me do the same.

Dan's right that I conflated the difference between overall foreign aid and official development assistance in my comments to his posts. Compared to most other countries, Americans actually give quite a lot of money in overall foreign aid, even though our official development assistance is not great in terms of direct aid. But, after all, this was the point I was trying to make yesterday: that even though it's great that we provide a lot of emergency relief, that's not enough - we have to provide the kind of aid that helps developing countries stand on their own two feet so that they can modernize and prosper enough not to need so much emergency relief in the future. And we have to give aid to less "glamorous" problems like education, clean water, and infectious diseases.

But the question of whether America is stingy relative to other developed countries is really beside the point. Dan was right to say that it is not my main concern. And I don't think it really ought to be the main concern - even if America were more generous than all other countries, you could still say (and I would say) that even the commendable generosity that we do show is not enough to meet the objective needs of developing countries.

After all, the comment by that UN official that triggered this whole debate about U.S. stinginess referred to all Western countries, not just the U.S. Are we not, all of us in the developed world, stingy?

A final note - Dan remarked that constantly berating Americans for being stingy would make generous Americans feel unappreciated, and thus donate less. Certainly, point taken about using carrots and sticks, attracting more flies with honey, etc. Still, it seems to me that Americans donate money to foreign aid not because this will make pundits praise American generosity, but because donating money to foreign aid is a Good Thing. (Aid by democratic governments sensitive to public opinion is another matter. Thus, we should praise Bush for pledging $15 billion to fight AIDS, but also criticize him for not fully following through on the pledge.)

Update: Thanks to Dan for linking here. He's got an excellent and well-written blog.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting a reply, Andrew.

It certainly would be nice if generosity were entirely altruistic, but I suspect that for many it mostly isn't: the presumed efficacy of their donations, as well as the appreciation they receive in return, surely plays a substantial motivational role. (There are, alas, few truly Secret Santas.)

And while most everyone, and most every country, can always give more (and more intelligently), it strikes me as almost cartoonishly counterproductive for anyone to ritually direct their dismay at "stinginess in general" at the most generous member of the international community--as so often happens today as part of a fashionable and perfectly useless anti-Americanism. (And that point remains whether the UN's Jan Egeland was or wasn't doing so while standing on U.S. soil.)

This whole subject makes me think of a valedictorian's frowning father reminding her that her "school grades on a curve, young lady," and that "objectively" she just hasn't met his expectations. And probably never will. If her self-esteem is sufficiently low, she may try even harder after such a lecture; otherwise, she's likely to cheerfully suggest that her dear old Dad go perform an anatomically awkward act upon himself.

In any event, I think simply highlighting needs--and realistically discussing the challenges of meeting those needs in a world plagued with corrupt governments and poorly-run aid organizations--is preferable to finger wagging.

Any day. 

Posted by Dan

1/06/2005 05:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see your point, but I would choose a different analogy for the valedictorian - suppose the school she attended is so bad that even she never learned basic algebra, or never learned to write a coherent essay (or never learned to write at all?). By any objective standards, she isn't educated. And by any objective standards, neither the US nor any developed country spends enough effort on development aid. It seems a bit disingenuous to say we could always do better (a phrase that implies we are doing pretty well already) when the shortfall is so egregious.

Still, you make a good point that finger wagging is counterproductive, especially finger wagging directed at America to the exclusion of other (equally if not more guilty) developed countries.

On the "carrots and sticks" issue, I think my point was a bit narrower - yes, people give money because they think it will be appreciated, but that's usually appreciation on a personal level. Like when aid organizations send a thank-you card, or the "save one child for 30 cents a month" organization has the child write thank-you letters every few months. It just seems weird to me that someone would factor in pundits' opinions of America as a whole

Posted by Andrew

1/07/2005 01:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an argument to be made that the United States is open to trade and migration far more than most OECD countries, and that the country spends a lot more on military operations. Nonetheless, the original ‘stingy’ argument applied to aid, and here there is no doubt that the US, even combining public and private organizations, is stingy. See here

Posted by AdamSmithee

1/10/2005 03:32:00 AM  
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