In their pompous belief in American exceptionalism, there are some people—typically on the right—who claim that the United States “is the most charitable country on earth.” Next, they try to explain why we’re so generous, and they have plenty of ideas indeed. But, really, what we ought to ask first is whether or not it’s true. Is it really true that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on what we’re measuring and how we measure it. In the first of a two part series examining “American generosity,” I’ll look at how the United States compares as a nation to other nations in terms of its charitable contributions. In the second part, I’ll look at the generosity of the American people through private donations.

On a national scale, how does the United States compare? As a nation, are we the most charitable? If the American people are truly as generous as the believers in American exceptionalism say we are, this should be reflected in the national policies and agendas set by the people we’ve elected to represent us. Is it? Is giving a priority the American people are concerned about? Using some measures, it is. For example, if measure how much Official Development Aid (ODA) the United States gives compared to other nations, the United States far surpasses any other nation according to data compiled by the OECD. In absolute terms, the United States gave away $26.01 billion in ODA in 2008—nearly twice as much as the second most charitable nation (Germany) gave away.

But is this really a good measure of charitableness? The United States is the third most populated country and is by far the richest in the world (more than the next three richest countries combined). We would expect that the United States should have the highest donation rate in absolute terms, based on that fact alone (there is, in fact, a strong positive relationship between the total wealth of a nation and the absolute amount it gives away). How does the United States compare when we look at ODA relative to the nation’s gross national income (GNI)? According to the same OECD data, the United States ranks dead last among industrialized nations in terms of the ODA it gives away as a percent of GNI. In 2008, the United States gave away just 0.18% of its GNI in ODA, while Sweden, the most charitable of industrialized nations, gave away 0.98%. In other words, the United States is the least charitable industrialized nation relative to its wealth, while the Scandinavian countries are the most generous. Looking at the data, there is a slight trend showing the inverse relationship between a nation’s GNI and how much it contributes as a percentage of that GNI (in other words, nations with higher GNIs tend to donate a smaller percentage of it), as shown in the figure below.

By this measure, then, which I find much more reasonable, the United States is not very charitable at all. As you can see in the above graph, the United States is a big outlier, with very high GNI but very low percent of it going toward ODA. As you might have noted in the OECD data, there is a UN target of 0.7% of GNI being donated towards ODA, which only five nations have surpassed. More sobering is the fact that this goal was made 1970—40 years ago. In 1970, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2626, stating, “Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade.” The Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals 192 nations including the United States have agreed to achieve by 2015 to improve human existence, includes the goal of having rich nations contributing a minimum of 0.7% of GNI towards ODA. By 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached, it will have been 45 years since the target was established. While the last administration balked at the pact to fight poverty, the question is now if the Obama administration is going to renew America’s commitment to eradicating global poverty.

However, is simply increasing the amount of aid the answer to all the world’s problems? Clearly not. A lot of people, e.g. William Easterly, argue that foreign aid is ineffective or that we have no moral obligation to extract from our coffers to give to the disadvantaged—and they have strong arguments. Writes Easterly, “It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” Indeed, there are many problems that plague foreign aid. If the quality of the aid is not very good, then the quantity won’t make much of a difference. The problem becomes clear when we adjust aid figures for the quality of the aid. When we adjust the aid figures to reflect quality, for example by penalizing proliferation of programs or tying aid, the United States delivers only 0.07% of its GDP in quality aid, according to a paper by to a paper by David Roodman for the Center for Global Development. Similarly, according to a report by Action Aid, “roughly half of global aid is ‘phantom aid’, that is, it is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Argues Pekka Hirvonen in a 2005 paper for the Global Policy Forum, “development assistance is often of dubious quality. In many cases, aid is primarily designed to serve the strategic and economic interests of the donor countries or to benefit powerful domestic interest groups. Aid systems based on the interests of donors instead of the needs of recipients’ make development assistance inefficient. Too little aid reaches countries that most desperately need it, and, all too often, aid is wasted on overpriced goods and services from donor countries.” So, for example, during the Cold War, the superpowers were very “charitable,” and gave a lot of money away to client states that acquiesced to their political and economic interests. But does that promote development or help the people in most need of it? That’s “dubious.”

Clearly, there is both a quantity and a quality issue with foreign aid. To bring it to the present, some commentators, such as Ann-Louise Colgan, have noted, “aid flows are largely dictated by geo-strategic concerns rather than by efforts to reduce poverty.” For example, an overwhelming majority of U.S. aid goes to Israel, a lot more than any other nation. A majority of this is Foreign Military Financing (FMF). In fact, when you look at U.S. FMF, an inordinate amount goes to places like Israel, Egypt, and Colombia—in other words, the leading terrorist states. A lot more could be said about this, but the point should be clear. “Aid” is being to used to bolster strategic and ideological interests, not for the purpose of helping the poor escape their poverty or find a more decent life. Of course, all of this is perfectly transparent. Take, for example, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, who stated, “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”

What should we take from all of this? First, it should be clear that the United States is not nearly as generous as it is touted to be, certainly not “the most charitable country on earth.” We, like most developed and rich countries, continue to fall significantly short of the levels of aid promised. Second, we should also be concerned with the quality of the aid (rather than just the quantity). So long as our “generosity” is guided solely for self-interests, the issues of poverty and despair will continue to be with us well beyond the 2015 marker established to eradicate the world of this blight.

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