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Uncle Sam: foreign-aid tightwad

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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.

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