Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Meaningful Aid Contributions

Chapter 10 of World Hunger: Twelve Myths contains an intriguing sentence: “In light of the demonstrated generosity of many Americans, most of us would probably be chagrined to learn that U.S. foreign aid is only 0.15 percent of our nation’s gross national product – that’s less than half the percentage of GNP Germany provides, for example, and less than one-fifth of that provided by the Netherlands” (pg. 129). Given what a prominent world power the United States is, it is truly sad and disquieting to see just how stingy we are in our contributions to the rest of the world.

Some investigation puts these numbers in perspective. In 2005 numbers, the United States had the largest GNP in the world, approximately $12,970 billion. This would mean that our country contributed $19.5 billion to foreign aid (the numbers in World Hunger date from before 2005, but they are still useful here). Germany ranked third in the world with a GNP of $2,852 billion, and contributed $8.6 billion if we conservatively estimate foreign aid at 0.3%. The Netherlands fell at number 16 on the list with a GNP of $598 billion, and contributed 0.75% of that number, or $4.5 billion.

These numbers are shocking. The Netherlands has a GNP that is 4.6% that of the US, yet they contribute 23% of the aid that the US does. These countries vary widely in size, resources, and population, and the discrepancy in their GNPs has not changed significantly since 2005. So why would the Netherlands contribute so much more to foreign aid than the United States? We don’t really think of countries like that when we imagine rich countries lavishing attention on developing ones. As World Hunger made clear, the US has spent a lot of time and resources developing an “image” of itself based on a few choice foreign aid projects that show the world how generous we must be.

An example of this phenomenon that might be more recognizable (although not part of government aid) is the heavily marketed RED campaign, targeted towards providing aid to Africa. A visit to the RED website presents you with happy factoids such as “Your (RED) purchases have helped more than 58,000 pregnant women receive treatment to help prevent transmission of HIV to their babies.” This sounds great until you learn that there are 12 million women with HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. Now the campaign’s achievement sounds like a drop in the bucket, and almost despicable when you think about the resources that have been expended in the United States to promote the RED campaign itself – think overpriced Gap t-shirts, iPods, credit cards, and all the glossy advertisements full of celebrities promoting these products in magazines and on billboards. Why all this materialistic waste just to prevent HIV in 58,000 babies, when there are millions more doomed to suffer? And what about finding ways to feed all those children once we have saved them from HIV? Campaigns such as these make me think that Americans are more interested in feeling good about themselves than in helping others, and that must be the same reason the US’s contribution to foreign aid appears almost token at times.

I’m not disputing the fact that such useless campaigns probably exist in Germany and the Netherlands as well. But the numbers indicate that these countries’ governments are more committed to making a meaningful contribution to foreign aid. Germany and the Netherlands don’t appear to waste as much time on marketing. From personal experience, I would say that German culture does not indulge in “feel-good” campaigns like RED to the degree that Americans do (although it is not entirely unheard of). At the same time, their commitment to donating a sizable portion of their GNP to foreign aid indicates that they get more real work done. Just think what great things could be accomplished, if the United States contributed 0.75% of its enormous GNP to needy countries in a meaningful, productive manner.


World Hunger: Twelve Myths.




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