By John NorrisForeign aid has never been the most popular program in the federal budget. Most Americans think that it is the single largest item of government spending, greater than defense spending, Medicaid, or Medicare. Asked to guess how much of the budget goes to foreign aid, the average American estimates about 25 percent — when in reality it has been consistently less than 1 percent.
Given that it is an election year, and that spending on international affairs makes an easy target, it should come as no surprise that the Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget absolutely decimates spending on both international development and international affairs in general. (The Ryan budget would cut $31.6 billion from the international affairs account over the next four years.)
So yes, much of the public’s view of foreign aid is based on misperceptions. But the U.S. government, including Congress, deserves its own share of blame for the public’s cynical view toward foreign aid for one important reason: the United States still is not very selective in how it delivers aid. This year, the U.S. will deliver economic and security assistance to 146 countries around the globe. That approach is too scattershot, and makes it far less likely that any given aid program will actually nurture real change over the long haul. We continue to offer aid to too many bad partners and too many countries that are ready to graduate from assistance programs. The bottom line: we should be doing much more in fewer places if we hope to foster real change.
In our new report, Engagement amid Austerity: a Bipartisan Approach to Reorienting the International Affairs Budget, we rank all 146 countries receiving U.S. aid as to whether or not they rate as a good investment for scarce U.S. assistance dollars. Looking at everything from corruption to the percentage of the population living on less than two dollars a day, the report offers readers like you a wide array of data to reach their own conclusions about vital programs that make a huge difference for millions of people.