Like so many Americans, I have been glued to the television and its images from Haiti. On a coffee break, I watched first responders pull people out of the rubble. With my heart broken at the sight of such profound human suffering, a gentleman leaned over to me and said, “Well, here comes another ‘bailout.'”
I was shocked, offended, confused. In the face of so much suffering, how can one of my fellow citizens be so callous? Probably because the majority of Americans have a deep misperception of how much humanitarian aid is actually given by our country – and the scope of human suffering in the world.
One of the biggest mistakes made by Americans when thinking about international aid is how much we actually give. In recent years the United States has given around $23 billion in government-sponsored foreign aid annually, making it the largest donor in the world.
That figure is staggering, and like so many figures from the federal budget it is misunderstood and has led many Americans to resent the amount of money the United States gives to needy countries. Why give so much abroad, when we have so much need at home?
An example of this can be seen in a 1997 study conducted by the Kaiser Foundation and Harvard University. It found that 64 percent of Americans surveyed thought foreign aid was the largest part of the federal budget. Many thought it was as much as 20 percent of the budget. This resentment can best be seen in the recent statement of Rush Limbaugh who proclaimed, “… we’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. Income Tax.”
Unfortunately, the $23 billion figure is misleading. It represents less than 0.2 percent of the country’s gross national income (GNI) – or more practically, $75 to $78 per American citizen. If we look at just the cost per capita or cost as a percentage of GNI, then the United States gives far less than the other industrialized nations.
In comparison, the United Kingdom gives a little more than half the total dollars of the United States; it has a significantly smaller population and gives about 0.5 percent of its GNI to needy countries. In short, the United Kingdom does far more per person than the United States. The United States, like the other 22 industrialized nations, does not even give the crumbs from its abundant table to help needy countries.
Sweden does the best job with a pathetic 1 percent of its GNI, while the United States has historically been at the bottom of the list with less than 0.2 percent. What many Americans misunderstand about this discussion is the sheer size of the U.S. economy and the federal budget. Our economy is the largest in the world, almost twice the size of its competitors. Of course, we can afford to give more. In comparison, we should be giving a dramatically larger number.
The giving disparity becomes obvious when we look at the federal budget. The federal budget is in the trillions of dollars, a figure few Americans can ever come close to understanding. That $23 billion must be held in comparison to the $700 billion recently given to banks, or the trillion dollars spent to fund the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. An onlooker would be justified in arguing that we care more about war and money than the poor of the world.
While all of this should force Americans to rethink how much we give, it is more sobering to reflect on how we give and to whom. The United States typically gives as much to the nations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt and Columbia combined as it gives to the rest of the world. With about half of the aid going to U.S. allies or foreign relation projects, one should ask why we are giving aid and who are we trying to help.
In addition, the United States usually attaches strings to its assistance, regularly requiring recipients to purchase goods and services from U.S. companies regardless of the higher cost of production or transportation. These types of giving patterns should force us to ask about our motivation for giving.
An honest look at our national giving patterns should be held up to the words of Jesus in Luke 21 where the evangelist records:
“And he looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, of a truth I say unto you, that this poor widow hath cast in more than they all: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offering of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had” (Luke 21:1-4).
The words of Jesus should cause us to reflect on the pocket change we have half-heartedly thrown into the coffers of human need. Just like the rich man who wants everyone to know how much he gives, we proclaim large gifts on the evening news and revel in our own self-proclaimed glory.
Unfortunately, our generosity is not so profound when it is hard to find the corresponding sacrifice.
Monty M. Self is the oncology chaplain for the Baptist Health Medical Center – Little Rock and an adjunct instructor of ethics at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.