Colin L. Powell is making history as the first African American secretary of state to visit Africa. On the way to his initial stop in Mali, Powell acknowledged the "emotional connection" he feels with the continent. But as he told reporters aboard his plane, he is visiting Africa not "as a black man looking at a black problem, but as a secretary of State of the United States looking at a human problem."
Unfortunately, when the United States looks at the sick, malnourished, uneducated and homeless in Africa and other developing regions, it offers little more than the "conversation of hope" that Powell said he had with Mali's president. The "continuing support" Powell offered Mali amounts to little more than talk when compared to America's wealth and to the amount of assistance other rich nations provide their poor cousins. When it comes to foreign aid, the richest country in the world is the cheapest place on Earth. Of 22 developed nations, the U.S. ranks last in foreign aid as a percentage of gross national product.
America devotes just 0.1% of its wealth to foreign assistance, less than half the rich nations' average. Conventional wisdom says the U.S. gives so little in foreign aid because it does not generate votes for the politicians who allocate our tax dollars. Studies, however, indicate there might be more support for greater generosity than the White House and Congress recognize.
Studies by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland also found ignorance about the amount the U.S. gives in foreign aid. Instead of the actual 0.1%, Americans believe that about 20% of the budget is spent on foreign aid, according to Steven Kull, the program's director. Voters believe 20% is too much, but Kull's research indicates that they think 10% would be a more appropriate amount.
"Overall, I would say that when they get the [correct] information they are receptive to the amount being greater," Kull said. "It's not that they demand it be greater, but they are receptive to it."
There might be even greater receptivity if Americans realized that the greatest portion of their foreign-aid dollars are not spent on poor places like Mali but right here at home. "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States," according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Close to 80% of the [USAID] contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans."
Although ignorance of the 80% figure prevents greater voter support for foreign aid, some people abroad consider the high percentage to be one of the worst things about U.S. assistance. At a recent U.N. conference in Brussels, Belgium, Holland's minister for development cooperation, spoke of "tied aid" as one form of "bad donor behavior" by the U.S. and other nations. Tied aid requires recipient countries to purchase goods and services from the donor and "has been criticized as inefficient and harmful to . . . recipient nations," the U.N. says. During the conference, USAID Administrator Andrew S. Natsios announced that Washington will abide by an agreement to untie the aid by Jan. 1.
Though U.S. foreign-aid funding has been shamefully low for years, Powell now is in a position to push for a significantly bigger budget. He has said his tour of four African countries "gives me greater standing when I go before Congress and ask for additional funds to support our programs in Africa."
It would take a very big increase, however, for the U.S. to boost its foreign assistance to 0.7% of GNP, as it and other wealthy nations have agreed in principle to do.
Such an increase doesn't seem politically realistic now, but do Americans really want to be the stingiest kid on the block?