Are Americans stingy with foreign aid?

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As an American, I resent it when people suggest I’m stingy about foreign aid. Not only have I recently given $40 to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning international emergency health care provider Doctors Without Borders, why, I also wrote a check to my doctor and bought a magazine at Borders.

If the above statement sounds defensive, evasive and more than a little stupid, then I’m glad. That means I’ve successfully evoked the same thoughts that come to my mind when people attempt to argue that the United States is the most generous foreign aid giver in the world.

Yes, we give a greater total amount to foreign aid than any other industrialized nation in the world. But we’re also significantly larger than those industrialized nations. Comparing the total dollars given by the big ol’ 293 million-person U.S.A. to the total dollars given by 4.5 million-person Norway is just silly. It’s like comparing apples to really, really, really tiny apples. Nevertheless, “total amount given” is the statistic people who claim we’re super-generous constantly cite to back up their argument.

Try comparing foreign aid as a percentage of gross income and you get an entirely different picture. I mean, entirely. Measured by percentage of gross income, we are in fact the stingiest industrialized nation in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we devoted just .15 percent of the national booty to foreign aid in 2003.

Compare that to Norway. Go ahead, compare it! Oh, you want me to compare it. Fine. Norway gave .92 percent of its gross income to foreign aid in 2003. That makes the country more than six times as generous as the U.S. The next most generous givers were the Danes, who coughed up .84 percent.

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking that maybe we shouldn’t compare ourselves to the Scandinavians. After all, people in this country have to spend tens of billions of dollars each year to look fit, blond and handsome, while the Scandinavians are just born that way. Maybe we should compare ourselves to the Brits or, God forbid, the French.

Well, the Brits managed to fork over .34 percent of their gross income to foreign aid, more than twice our contribution. The French were more generous than that, fourchetting over .40 percent of their revenu national. That’s hardly generous by Scandinavian standards, but to the French it meant millions of cigarettes unsmoked and thousands of poodles ungroomed. It’s also nearly three times as generous as us.

The Center for Global Development and Foreign Policy magazine (subscribe today!) has come up with another way to measure international generosity. Wealthy nations are ranked not just by money given, but by trade, investment, technology, security and other criteria. For example, the calculations include the fact that the U.S. has lower agricultural tariffs than a lot of other industrialized nations. That means farmers from poor countries can sell to us more easily. By that measurement, we rank seventh out of the 21 richest countries. Not great — but less shameful than the last-place ranking in the scale I mentioned earlier.

By the way, during the post-tsunami arguments about American generosity, President Bush and his right-wing media chorus repeatedly pointed out that the official totals I described above don’t include private donations by generous Americans. They were right. However, private citizens of Norway, Switzerland and Ireland are still more generous, per capita, than we are.

All of this foreign aid talk raises a question: Does any of it matter? The answer is yes. The cash and logistical support we’re giving to the countries hit by the tsunami will save lives. Yet aid is just a small part of what rich countries can do to help poor countries. (Hell, the U.S. will spend more money in Iraq this month than the entire world has pledged to tsunami relief.) A better way to help poor countries is easing debt-relief.

The organization of 19 rich nations known as the Paris Club has offered the tsunami-stricken nations a temporary moratorium on debt repayments. That simple agreement freed up $5 billion for the tsunami-hit countries, more than the West has pledged in aid.