Saturday, January 15, 2005

U.S. Foreign aid

My thanks to a Canadian friend for bringing to my attention an article by Tom Frank in the New Republic (registration required), dealing with U.S. versus other countries' foreign aid - a timely piece, given the current post-tsunami debate over appropriate levels of rich-world giving. Back on January 5, I pointed out that we should keep in mind that "the United States doesn't look exceptionally generous when compared with other countries, as the media might have led you to believe." It does allright, but it's not exceptional, in spite of what the U.S. media would have you think. Frank starts his piece by pointing out the inane remarks by knee-jerk conservative commentators in The Washington Times, Fox "News" and elsewhere, who slam anyone - such as the UN's emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland - who dare to question America's innate and superior generosity. But he quickly gets past the cable news b.s. and moves on to more substantive matters, as follows:
    Whatever. The truth is, when it comes to helping the global poor, we're probably not the most generous nation, nor are we the least. We dwell in satisfying mediocrity and we like it. George W. Bush has increased aid levels somewhat--something Bill Clinton tried and failed to do--but it's still under 0.2 percent of GDP. In any case, maybe instead of calling ourselves the world's most generous nation, making excuses, and comparing defense budgets, we should simply ask whether America can, and should, give more. Leave Norway and Sweden aside. Under President Truman, the United States contributed about 2 percent of its GDP--about ten times its current percentage--to foreign aid, largely to help fund the Marshall Plan. And this was during a time when well over 10 percent of America's GDP was already going to defense. So we know we can do more if we want to. If we think that foreign aid can work--not always work, but at least often enough to try--then we should give more. If we don't, then we should give nothing. Either way, until we're truly as munificent as we claim, perhaps we should learn to be quiet about it. Sometimes, silence is charity enough.

I like that last bit in particular. Actually, I like the whole paragraph.


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