Generosity and Misperceptions in Meeting Needs Abroad

April 23, 2010

by Pat Ryan

We Americans consider ourselves to be among the most generous people on the planet and when it comes to individual charitable giving that appears to be the case. Americans give three and one-half times more per capita than the French, seven times more than the Germans and 14 times more than the Italians, according to a television news magazine story by John Stossel. When asked about Americans’ giving in response to the Haiti earthquake in January, Cass Wheeler, who knows something about raising money as former CEO of the American Heart Association, said, “When you think about this country, the spirit of volunteering time and making contributions is really a part of our fabric.”

It also appears, according to the Stossel report, that individual charitable giving is more common among people of modest means than among the well-to-do. We can believe that, when considering the donation of $300 from a very hard working, well meaning, Cookeville teenager who gave his odd job earnings to the Rotary Haiti Relief fund when the call went out. If Cookeville had a humanitarian award he’d be in the running, if not for modesty about being recognized for his generosity.

Our collective sense that giving is “part of our fabric” extends to average Americans’ belief about foreign aid. Not the individual charity giving and hands-on working but the official stuff, I’m referring to the U.S. Government aid abroad. Last week Tennessee Tech’s Window on the World Symposium featured speakers on development issues. That means efforts to eliminate extreme poverty, eradicate illnesses, reduce illiteracy, and provide clean water – the less than one dollar a day income level for more than one billion people on the planet. The symposium was focused on Africa but we found a discussion of U.S. aid aboard, in a general sense, worthy of further exploration.

One of the subject matter experts on the panel was retired American diplomat Jan Hartman who spent a career in the U.S. Foreign Service in places like Somalia, Angola, Gabon and Sao Tome – certainly places to be on anybody’s “bucket list.” Google time. Jan offered that many Americans believe our government provides ten or twenty percent of its spending on lifting the rest of the world from poverty through development assistance. In fact, she noted, it is less than one percent. Well, yes, much lower than one percent.

In 1970 the United Nations agreed – with American concurrence – that advanced nations like the United States should set a target of seven tenths of one percent of their annual gross national product for official development assistance. As of 2008 the United States provided less than one third of that target. That is .2 percent of GNP when the goal is .7 percent. Among the industrialized countries, considered to be the 30 nations that make up the OECD community of countries, the United States is on the tail end of 21 other countries, just behind Portugal, Greece and Italy.

We often hear of large sums of international aid money being doled out by our government around the world but consider that military aid is a major component of that giving and that much of American support – about $3 billion of $26 billion in foreign aid money – goes to a single recipient, Israel. Its Camp David Peace Treaty co-signer Egypt is not far behind. The aid to Israel, marked at $30 billion over ten years starting last year, is mostly military assistance.

As Foreign Service Officer Hartman pointed out, American aid, both humanitarian development assistance and military aid, is generally in the form of buy backs of U.S. goods and services. That serves to boost profits of American companies but it is not always in the best interest of the aid goals. She cited cases of equipment and talent that could be purchased closer to the destination of the aid but due to the strings attached the costs skyrocket and the bang for the buck – aid delivered – is diminished.

So when it comes to international aid we should, as individuals and community groups, feel pretty good about looking out for others in need but when it comes to the U.S. government – and our thinking that America is leading the world – well, not so fast. As the Congressional Research Service has reported the “United States is the largest international economic aid donor in dollar terms but is the smallest contributor among the major donor governments when calculated as a percent of gross national income.” Foreign assistance is an essential instrument of U.S. foreign policy, said the CRS, suggesting it is time to examine where and how these funds are spent so that the reality comes more in line with our perceptions.

Pat Ryan writes about international affairs from Cookeville, Tennessee. He can be contacted through

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