FOREIGN AID has long been a favorite whipping boy for many conservatives and for critics of American involvement in global affairs. The objections are familiar: Why send money to other countries that we could easily spend on needs here at home? Why spend taxpayers' money to aid wasteful or corrupt governments? Why not rely on the free market to generate prosperity that will raise living standards for the very poor?
In recent years, those attitudes have helped drive down the level of U.S. foreign assistance. Last year's $12 billion allocation was the smallest aid budget in a decade. That amount represented less than 1 percent of the federal budget -- a fact that always surprises the public.
But what policy makers ought to pay attention to is the strong support expressed by the majority of Americans for economic assistance to developing countries. When misconceptions are dispelled, such as the common assumption that foreign aid takes a sizable percentage of the budget, sizable majorities express approval of programs like child survival or family planning and maternal health that directly improve the lives of the world's poorest people.
In June, the Business Alliance for Economic Development issued a report detailing the benefits to Americans of the U.S. foreign aid program. The report cited strong evidence that development assistance for poor countries leads directly to increased exports for U.S. corporations and more jobs for U.S. workers. It called for increasing U.S. economic assistance to the level it enjoyed in the 1960s, about $18 billion in constant 1995 dollars.
If policy makers are surprised about the economic benefits of foreign aid, they should be even more enlightened by recent polls of public attitudes which have found that strong majorities of Americans support economic assistance for poor countries -- not so much for economic reasons but simply because it is the right thing to do. In one poll, when respondents were asked what an appropriate level of foreign assistance would be, a majority cited 5 percent of the budget -- five times the current level.
Americans dislike waste and corruption, but they also believe in helping those in need. House and Senate conferees, now in the process of reconciling their differences in another meager foreign aid bill, ought to take notice.
Pub Date: 9/23/96