US foreign aid: Do Americans give enough?

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With a carrier fleet on hand off Sumatra, the United States seems likely to play its usual role of being the biggest provider of relief in a major humanitarian disaster.

American giving to help the victims of the Asian tsunamis, so sudden and captured so dramatically by television, is huge. Washington has pledged $350 million in aid. Only Japan, which is closer to the Indian Ocean, has promised more - $500 million. Moreover, President Bush enlisted two former presidents, Bill Clinton and his father, George H.W. Bush, to lead a nationwide campaign to raise private funds - a move that squares with the president's preference for private economic activities.

Such efforts have pushed the question of American charity to the forefront. Is the US stingy when it comes to foreign aid?

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The answer depends on how you measure.

It's a sensitive issue to the Bush administration, which is proud of its sizable boost in foreign aid with the creation of the Millennium Challenge Account for poor countries with good economic policies and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS relief. Mr. Bush, one aid expert said, undoubtedly shares in the humanitarian concerns of the evangelical Christian community that supports him politically.

In terms of traditional foreign aid, the US gave $16.25 billion in 2003, as measured by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of the world's rich industrial nations. That was almost double the aid by the next biggest net spender, Japan ($8.8 billion). Other big donors were France ($7.2 billion) and Germany ($6.8 billion).

But critics point out that the US is much bigger than those individual nations. As a group, member nations of the European Union have a bit larger population than the US and give a great deal more money in foreign aid - $49.2 billion altogether in 2003.

In relation to affluence, the US lies at the bottom of the list of rich donor nations. It gave 0.15 percent of gross national income to official development assistance in 2003. By this measure, Norway at 0.92 percent was the most generous, with Denmark next at 0.84 percent.

Bring those numbers down to an everyday level and the average American gave 13 cents a day in government aid, according to David Roodman, a researcher at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington. Throw in another nickel a day from private giving. That private giving is high by international standards, yet not enough to close the gap with Norway, whose citizens average $1.02 per day in government aid and 24 cents per day in private aid.

But the administration sees that count as too restrictive. Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development, claimed on television last week that US foreign aid was $24 billion in 2003, up from $10.6 billion when President Clinton took office. Some experts say that number, bigger than the OECD count, is a bit mysterious. It probably includes some debt forgiveness, such as $1 billion for the Congo. Last month, the US forgave $4 billion in Iraqi debt, which may get counted in 2004 numbers for foreign aid.

The purpose of much foreign aid is to reduce poverty and encourage progress in developing nations. Toward that end, Mr. Roodman's CGD has attempted to capture other policies to construct a Commitment to Development Index for 21 rich nations. Here the US comes in much better, at No. 7. The index considers trade policy, foreign investment, immigration, environmental policy, technology, and security (some military assistance), as well as official and private aid in ranking the generosity of nations.

The US, for instance, has relatively open borders to exports from poor countries. Its agriculture is less protected than that of Europe or Japan. It lets in 1 million or so immigrants a year, mostly from Mexico and other poor nations. They remit tens of billions home.

Moreover, the US has a huge defense budget, some of which benefits developing countries. Making a judgment call, the CGD includes the cost of UN peacekeeping activities and other military assistance approved by a multilateral institution, such as NATO. So the US gets credit for its spending in Kosovo, Australia for its intervention in East Timor, and Britain for military money spent to bring more stability to Sierra Leone.

Then there's the question of balance.

Some aid experts worry that American giving to alleviate the tsunami disaster will prove out of proportion compared with other needs around the world.

For example, some 240,000 people a month (1,776 in rich countries) die of HIV/AIDS, another 136,000 a month from diarrhea in developing countries, notes Roodman. Famine kills far more people than the 150,000 plus who died in the tsunamis.

The US often helps battle these more endemic challenges too. But politics can intrude. Motives are sometimes mixed. Assistance to famine in Ethiopia or elsewhere can be a big boost to American farmers.

"Not to belittle what we are doing, we shouldn't get too self-congratulatory," says Frederick Barton, an economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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