When the average American is asked how much of the federal budget they believe is allocated to foreign aid, the response is 25 percent — twenty-five times the current amount. When Americans are surveyed on how much funding they believe should be allocated to foreign aid, the response is 10 percent. In reality, USAID comprises less than one percent of the federal budget. In comparison to our spending on social security, defense and energy, USAID’s entire budget is pocket change.
For many countries, this tiny portion of the federal budget provides essential assistance for their citizens. It helps fight hunger, monitor and combat human rights violations, and provide access to necessities, such as healthcare, adequate shelter, and clean water. Afghanistan, the largest recipient of USAID at $2.2 billion annually, has used its funding to promote free and fair elections, increase transparency in government, and support independent media. These aspects of good governance are common in the everyday lives of Americans, but have created new avenues of civic participation in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the country faces an ongoing struggle with government corruption, access to justice, women’s rights and human rights violations.
Out of the ten largest country-donors of foreign aid, the United States contributes the least per capita at roughly sixty dollars per person. Japan, a close runner-up, contributes over eighty dollars per person. Germany and the U.K. contribute more than two times the amount of foreign aid per capita. Sweden, Denmark and Norway are among the most generous, with contributions ranging from $600-$1,100 per capita for populations only ranging from five to 9.5 million.
What does this say about U.S. foreign aid? A 2010 poll by the Chicago Council of Foreign Affairs asked Americans what they thought of USAID spending despite our domestic economic turmoil. Seventy-four percent of Americans favored providing money for food and medical aid to other countries, while 62 percent favored providing aid for developing countries to stimulate their economy.
When informed about how little America actually spends abroad providing disaster relief, long-term poverty reduction, hunger prevention and human rights programs, most Americans are baffled at the low amount. Perhaps it is time we re-evaluate how we compare to our peers when it comes to humanitarian assistance.