Thursday, June 16, 2005

Credit to the BBC

The BBC' s Stephen Evans has put together a worthy story about American generosity.
There is a smug view in Europe that the United States is particularly mean when it comes to helping poor countries. Whatever list you make of generosity to those less fortunate than themselves, the Americans will be near the bottom of it.

But it's not quite as simple as that - and certainly not the way the Americans see it.

Evans cites the same Carole Adleman statistics that I highlighted two days ago, and even gives credit to religious organizations. (Although he can't resist the typically BBC-ish backhanded knock on religion, noting happily that much of their generosity even comes without "theology". Is generosity that comes with "theology" somehow less worthy?)

Evans points out that:
Americans do not give like other people do. They don't assume the government knows best and leave generosity to politicians and officials. The figures do not show America as the world's most generous people, but nor do they show Americans as the meanest.
On that last point, he doesn't cite which figures he is talking about, but he probably means figures based on giving as a percent of GDP, which has become the standard measure of national generosity since the Earth Summit in 1992, at which it was proclaimed that .7% of GDP was the "proper" amount of foreign giving.

Of course, measuring generosity in this way, whether including private giving or not, while ignoring absolute values is fairly meaningless. For example, in 2004, Norway topped the list of Official Development Assistance as a percent of GDP at .87%. That amounted to $2.2 billion. Official US assistance, which was ranked 2nd to last, came in at .16% of GDP, or $18.99 billion. So, which country's (official) assistance is doing more to help the world's poor? Or, put another way, if you were in charge of a foreign aid agency, whose contributions could you more afford to do without? The answer, of course, is obvious.

In any event the BBC deserves credit for taking a look at private American giving in order to give some perspective to the myth of American miserliness. Well done, Beeb.

UPDATE: In the comments, Richard John makes the excellent point that government spending ought not count as generosity at all. Says RJ:
When my taxes get spent on aid I am not being generous as I have not made the decision to spend the money. This is the case for everyone whose vote in the election is not determined by foreign-aid policy (i.e. more or less everyone). Therefore government aid is no indicator at all of a peoples generosity. A figure that may be interesting is the private giving as a proportion of after-tax income. If such tables are worth anything at all then this would be interesting. Of course, this does not measure "time" or other forms of help that goes beyond the placing of money into a tin cup.

6 Comments:

Blogger Richard John said...

Scott,

I think there is a justification for measuring a countries generosity through using a proportion of GDP. Just as we also measure GDP growth in percentage (and not absolute dollar) terms.

The most important aspect of this area remains the media's nearly exclusive focus on government spending as a proxy for a nations generosity. In fact, the OPPOSITE is the case.

When my taxes get spent on aid I am not being generous as I have not made the decision to spend the money. This is the case for everyone whose vote in the election is not determined by foreign-aid policy (i.e. more or less everyone). Therefore government aid is no indicator at all of a peoples generosity. A figure that may be interesting is the private giving as a proportion of after-tax income. If such tables are worth anything at all then this would be interesting. Of course, this does not measure "time" or other forms of help that goes beyond the placing of money into a tin cup.


RJ

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Jos Bleau said...

Much aid is simply neocolonialism that winds up in the pockets of rich world cronies of the givers.

I've worked with development folks in Africa who complain about this.

Consider an infrastructure project. Say a road, which is funded by aid but is being built to service a European-managed mining operation in an African nation. All the fuel will have been bought at 3 times the world price from the local Totalfina-Elf subsidiary (which may just be a 'marketing office' that buys the actual fuel used from a local provider). Simple construction materials such as sand or gravel that could easily be obtained locally have to be shipped in from Europe at great expense and often causing consideranble delay. Likewise with equipment used. Medical clinics will be built for the workers - but will only stock outdated pharmaceuticals being donated at full price from by Eropean pharmas. If the workers require drugs or supplies not produced (or being disposed of) by European pharmas they are out of luck.

Of course, there will be a small army of European expats to provide management and oversight. The fees paid to big time consulting companies & bookeepers will almost always be higher than the total spent on local labor. Not even the bribes paid to local officials stay in the local economy - they wind up in European banks or spent in Europe.

As actually spent, most European aid does little more than further European business interests and help the local tyrants keep their grip on power.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Richard John said...

Jos,

Other than the emphasis on "Europe" what you says rings true. I think it is true whether the aid money is sourced from the US, the UK or France.

Which is why "aid" is a subject that deserves forensic scrutiny from the media rather than facile deference.

RJ

6:34 PM  
Blogger Louis said...

So which country's official assistance is doing more to help the worlds poor?

From a Christian perspective what about the widow's two mites (Luke 21:1-4, Mark 12:41-44)?

8:05 PM  
Anonymous Jos Bleau said...

Actually, American aid is somewhat better, but still all too easily corrupted. US Gov't funded aid is more likely to go to/thru international organizations and multi-country programs which get more scrutiny than the euro's aid. The EU (and its members acting individually) tend to fund specific projects managed directly with or by the host country - which amount to little more than neocolonialism.

So there is a structural difference between US & European aid that matter quite a bit.

But in any case I don't think that average Americans are more honest or noble people than average Europeans. No, EU aid is as corrupt as as it is due to lack of scrutiny - as the article shows, merely apealing to the moral vanity fo the elite/media class is enough to keep them feeling good about themselves and not looking into how the political class and their cronies are lining their pockets with 'developement' aid.

9:10 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Interesting hearing how European foreign aid is managed. It reminds me of a book that came out last year, called "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man", written by an American about his real-life story working for a consulting firm, linked to the U.S.'s intelligence agencies, as an economist. He outlined much the same kind of management of foreign aid as has been described for European foreign aid. In addition, he said that coupled with the aid were massive loans, loans people like him knew that the host country could not repay. The U.S., in concert with the IMF and World Bank, used it as leverage to gain political alliances or concessions. He said they also used to corrupt foreign government officials for the same ends. I keep thinking that this is the reason for the debt forgiveness I hear about from time to time. We don't need the allegiance or fielty of certain countries anymore, so we take them out from under our thumb.

Lastly he said that not all foreign aid is this way. The tsunami relief the U.S. gave, for example, was entirely altruistic.

The author's name is John Perkins. It was interesting listening to him. He didn't take on the tone of bashing the U.S. He just explained matter of factly what he did in his career. He did reach a point though where he said he couldn't do it anymore with a good conscience.

11:56 PM  

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