The Foreign Aid Mirage

The Clinton administration's proposed $1 billion increase in foreign affairs expenditures for fiscal year 1998 has recently reached Capitol Hill.

Yet already some are saying "no way" - no way in general and no way to foreign aid in particular. They argue that public support for aid to developing countries is low and diminishing. Aid is viewed as pass, belonging to a previous era. Its support is further eroded by economic difficulties and budgetary constraints at home. The only way to maintain support for aid is to highlight its pragmatic usefulness, in particular as a way of maintaining strong relationships with key allies abroad.

All these statements have one thing in common: As descriptions of the prevailing public mood in donor countries, they are largely false. A brief review of the evidence shows support for aid is strong and growing.

Opinion polls carried out in the "club" of aid donors, the 21 major industrial countries that belong to the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, show that in 1995, 79 percent of respondents supported development aid. While support is weaker in the United States, with only 47 percent of the public in favor of aid, supporters still outnumber opponents of aid.

Support for aid is not exclusively an attitude shared by those who are nostalgic for a bygone era. A poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes in 1995 revealed that young Americans were much more supportive of aid than older Americans. A 1995 US study published by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations revealed that young people with international experience tended to be more supportive of aid than others.

Asked what should be the main goal for transferring resources to developing countries, most respondents cite humanitarian motives, rather than the search for strategic advantages. This is also reflected in the preference to give aid to "needier nations" - those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (41 percent of respondents according to a US 1993 survey), rather than the former Soviet Union (23 percent) or Eastern Europe (17 percent). Moreover, the same viewpoint is reflected in the preference given to multilateral, rather than bilateral, aid. Asked what is the best way to channel foreign aid, 47 percent of US respondents cite the United Nations, while 18 percent prefer national governments and 16 percent private charities.

Finally, aid is strongly correlated, in attitude surveys, with indicators of social compassion - the willingness to help the less fortunate. There is an observable correlation between public support for aid in a given country and the size of the public sector in that country - a proxy measure of a society's inclination to support the poorest within its ranks.

The role of values, rather than immediate self-interest, as a rationale for foreign aid is further seen in the surprising fact that support for aid is not correlated with the wealth or economic success of the donor. Fiscal deficits or high rates of unemployment, for example, are typically not predictive of a lower support for aid. In fact, among donor countries, gross domestic product per capita is inversely correlated with support for aid.

These results are quite startling. Yet they are confirmed by numerous polls carried out by a variety of independent research institutes. Is aid fatigue, then, merely a mirage? The fact is, aid budgets, whether multilateral or bilateral, have on average fallen as a percentage of government expenditures since 1992. Could this be because we have been too busy listening to those with the loudest voices, instead of probing the hearts and minds of the silent majority?

* James Gustave Speth is administrator of the United Nations Development Programme.

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