U.S. second to none for generosity

Monday, February 14, 2005

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Q: There was a recent article where a writer made mention that the United States actually gives less as a nation than many of the other industrialized nations of the world. That surprised me. My husband thought, perhaps, that was as a country and did not include individual donations. So I was just wondering if you could clarify for us where our country stands as a whole in terms of charitable giving throughout the world, maybe as a country and then if you can include individual donations. -- Herline Bowers

A: The statistic that the United States gives less foreign aid than other industrialized nations is true only if one talks about official government foreign aid as a percentage of Gross National Product, which is a metric employed by the United Nations. Under this measurement, in 2003 the United States was last on the list of industrialized countries. However, in absolute dollar terms, the United States government is by far the largest donor, with its more than $16 billion in aid representing more than 24 percent of all official development assistance in 2003. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. was followed by Japan (13 percent), France (11), Germany (10) and the United Kingdom (9).

Your husband brings up another important point, though, because the numbers cited above exclude private assistance. According to several studies found on the Internet, Americans are more generous than the citizens of any other industrialized country in both income percentage given and total dollar amount.

In a 2003 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Carol Adelman, a former official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote: "Current measures of a nation's largesse only count funds doled out by the government, thus ignoring the primary way in which Americans help others abroad: through the private sector. In the last decade, U.S. government aid has been far outstripped by private donations -- from foundations, private voluntary organizations, corporations, universities, religious groups and individuals giving directly to needy family members abroad ... In the third wave of foreign aid, it is the private money that is making the difference."

Adelman estimated private American donations as "conservatively" three times official U.S. aid.

I must admit, there are lots of numbers and arguments out there, and some of the information is speculative. How should military assistance be counted (it's not, even if it concerns U.S. military helicopters flying supplies to tsunami victims in Southeast Asia, or military ships rerouting to the region and employing desalinization technology so survivors can receive drinkable water)? How should emergency aid be ranked compared to long-term development? Are there some kinds of aid that are actually counterproductive, although they are used by international groups for comparisons? The answers to most of the questions above are tilted against the United States in terms of how the international community credits and ranks foreign aid.

No matter how anyone defines it, though, in terms of absolute dollars given, the United States and its citizens rank No. 1.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian. He can be reached at jrust@semissourian. com.

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