What will drive decisions on U.S. foreign aid spending in these times of budget austerity? Stakeholders in the global development community are eager to know, given that a host of overseas programs may well end up on the chopping block next year.
To shed light on this question, I helped organize a panel discussion with the Washington chapter of the Society for International Development analyzing the dynamics of the foreign aid debate. The panelists provided views from the perspectives of politicians making the decisions, foreign aid “implementers” (companies and consultants who are hired to carry out aid projects) and U.S. citizens, who have skin (e.g. tax dollars) in the game.
It isn’t entirely clear how much heed politicians pay to the opinions of the general public, despite the fact that they foot the bill for foreign aid. Survey results that I presented at the panel, from InterMedia’s 2012 study, Building Support for International Development, indicate that politicians consider citizens to be ill-informed about global events in general and development issues in particular. What’s more, citizens’ views are seen as driven more by emotions than knowledge, and influenced primarily by news of catastrophic events (think tsunamis or earthquakes) in foreign lands. Lawmakers claim to take their lead on foreign aid issues from moral imperatives, as well as from advice offered by development experts in the academic and think-tank realms.
When it comes to citizens’ views, it is often assumed that most Americans consider foreign aid to be misallocated – money that would better be spent meeting domestic needs – and prone to waste and corruption on the receiving end. But figures I noted from the Building Support study provide a more nuanced picture. When U.S. citizens were asked, “How much is your government doing to improve economic and social conditions in developing countries,” only 24% said “too much.” Thirty-nine percent answered, “About the right amount,” while 31% actually responded, “too little” (6% didn’t respond).
Similarly, when asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “Most financial aid to developing countries is wasted,” only 26% strongly agreed, while 18% agreed somewhat. The majority either came down on the middle or disagreed.
So it would seem that proponents of preserving foreign aid spending may have more potential allies among the U.S. public than they might expect. The Building Support report has plenty of suggestions on how to engage the public on foreign aid issues, and I encourage you to take a look at it.