The other day, a United Nations official accused the United States of being "stingy" in terms of aid to tsunami victims in South Asia. After criticism from the State Department, the official clarified his position: Americans are not being stingy in helping tsunami victims, only stingy in terms of overall foreign aid as compared with other countries.
This is a familiar attack, which comes up annually when the foreign aid appropriations bill is before Congress. But let's look at the facts. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2003, the world's major countries gave a total $108.5 billion in foreign aid. Of this, the US contributed $37.8 billion, or 35 percent of the total. The next largest foreign aid contributor was the Netherlands, which gave $12.2 billion, following two years in which it was actually a net recipient of foreign aid.
The claim of stinginess, however, comes from a different calculation - foreign aid as a share of national income. In 2003, US foreign aid came to just 0.34 percent, well below the world-leading Dutch at 2.44 percent. Other big contributors are Ireland (1.83 percent), Norway (1.49 percent), and Switzerland (1.09 percent). The US would have to triple foreign aid just to reach the lowest of these contributors.
The first thing one notices when looking at the big foreign aid contributors is that they all spend very little on national defense. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2002, the Netherlands spent just 1.6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Norway spent 2.1 percent, Switzerland spent 1.1 percent, and Ireland spent a piddling 0.7 percent. By contrast, the US spent 3.4 percent - and this was before the Iraq war. It's easy to be generous with foreign aid when another country is essentially providing your defense free of charge.
Another thing one notices is that the foreign-aid data only reflect "official" (i.e., government) aid. The data are sketchy, but by all accounts Americans are far more generous in terms of charitable contributions than the citizens of any other country.
A 1991 study found Britain to have the second-largest percentage of private charitable giving. But in 2003, charitable giving amounted to £8.6 billion, or 0.8 percent of GDP, in Britain, according to the Charities Aid Foundation, compared with $241 billion, or 2.2 percent of GDP, in the US, according to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel.