The United States is a foreign-aid cheapskate. It has been for a long time, compared with other prosperous aid-giving nations. And it is getting more parsimonious.
In terms of development assistance as a proportion of total national output, the US is last among 21 industrial countries. The world's only superpower gives about $29 per person. Typically less-rich nations spend $70 per capita on aid, mostly to help the 1.2 billion people living on less than $1 a day.
Lifting these people out of "absolute poverty" is the "moral issue of the 21st century," says John Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council (ODC) in Washington. "We know how to do it."
Yet statistics show that the US falls behind Japan as the largest aid donor. With an economy half the size of the US, Japan gave $10.4 billion in fiscal 1997-98, the US $7.8 billion.
Americans aren't ungenerous in nature. When television shows starving Ethiopians or other grim scenes, Americans open their wallets and purses wide for private charities shipping food.
Public opinion surveys find strong support for helping poor countries. Americans, however, have a greatly exaggerated view of how much their nation spends for aid.
The median estimate is that Washington allocates 15 percent of its budget on aid. The fact is that the amount of aid the Clinton administration requested for foreign assistance in its budget for fiscal 2001 will be 0.6 percent of all federal expenditures, reckons the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank.
That aid is only 0.11 percent of the total US economy, a level tied for the lowest percentage on record. It was twice as big a percentage in the 1980s - the Reagan era.
Why, then, is the nation an aid tightwad? One reason is that neither President Clinton or President Bush before him made foreign aid a high priority. They never explained adequately to the public why aid is vital.
As a rule, Congress trims a White House budget proposal for aid. Worse, it earmarks much of the aid for politically useful purposes. For instance, Congress allots money to Israel and Northern Ireland, both well off, aiming to please Jewish- and Irish-American voters. Aid is now subject to 120 distinct, congressionally mandated spending directives, many linked to a single congressional sponsor. Some feed money to a specific US institution to carry out the project.
"Many of these earmarks are well intentioned, but their cumulative impact is to weaken the US aid program," note ODC economists Kevin Morrison and David Weiner in a new study.
In his major foreign policy speech in Boston on Sunday, Vice President Gore offered several key reasons for aid as part of a "new security agenda." He worried about new pandemics and new mutations of disease; global warming; slowing the drug trade; terrorism, poverty that "invites social dislocation violence, and war;" a need for "reinvigorated international and regional institutions;" education and the empowerment of women; improvement in child and maternal healthcare; debt relief; and access to family planning.
"We need to give the poorest countries a hand up," he said. But the Democratic presidential candidate did not call for far more resources from Congress to deal with the costs of these foreign policy goals.
The politician willing to take a leadership role on development assistance "will not suffer a political cost," figures Mr. Sewell. Neither, though, will he make "political gains."
Aid programs aren't perfect. But ODC economists see a consensus emerging on how to make them even more effective.
The big issues of this century are likely to be related to development as today's 6 billion people swell to a projected 9 billion by 2050.
That the UN's population projection is "only" 9 billion and not more reflects in degree the success of US and other foreign aid. Morrison and Weiner note that the US population program alone has introduced 50 million couples to family planning. And US assistance has helped 36 nations move toward democracy in the past decade.
*David R. Francis is the Monitor's senior economic correspondent.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society