May 21, 2012; Source: Kaiser Family Foundation

Does the American public believe that foreign aid—often delivered through NGOs—is worth supporting? The Kaiser Family Foundation just released a survey on national attitudes toward global health which the Foundation’s executive director, Drew Altman, says “uncovered important nuances about the argument for foreign aid and global health.” The survey has implications for nonprofit assistance in general.

Altman says that the survey showed young people are more likely than older people to be supportive of aiding other countries with health issues, which is probably not a surprise.  Americans who had travelled to other countries were slightly more disposed in favor of foreign aid than those whose travel was limited to the 50 U.S. states. Altman suggests that college semester or year abroad programs may be important in building support for foreign aid.

Another unsurprising but perhaps more important finding is that “One of the strongest predictors of support for global health spending was the belief that aid would make a difference,” as Altman interprets the survey’s findings. He says that “the public believes that almost half of every dollar we spend to help other countries is lost through corruption.” That would make both telling the story of the impact of foreign aid and developing strong, well publicized anti-corruption measures critical challenges for government and for the NGOs that administer U.S. foreign aid. One wonders, then, with the large amounts of foreign aid flowing to and through the Karzai government in Afghanistan and the frequent reports of Afghanistan’s corruption problems, whether aid focused on places like Afghanistan in and of itself harms the case for aid more generally.

The NPQ Newswire has noted in the past that a small proportion of the federal budget goes to foreign aid (about one percent). Altman suggests that people who understand the small share of the budget devoted to foreign aid are more likely to support it than those who erroneously believe aid constitutes a much larger share. Is it simply ignorance, or do the opponents and critics of aid gin up those numbers as part of their justification for opposing foreign aid? Sometimes, regarding the positions of critics of government, you have to wonder whether it is plain ignorance or intentional ignorance.

According to Altman, “We also found in the survey, as we have in previous ones, that specifying that the purpose of foreign aid is for health matters. Fifty four percent of the American people say we are spending ‘too much’ on ‘foreign aid’ whereas only 21% say we are spending too much ‘to improve health for people in developing countries’ (32% said not enough).”

Altman concludes that explaining the purpose or target of foreign aid helps in generating public support. While people criticize foreign aid in general, the critics of specific foreign aid or global health are much less dominant. One suspects that people confuse development and health aid with other kinds of U.S. assistance provided to foreign countries, particularly military aid. If the U.S. could extract itself from its role as the primary international provider of military equipment, perhaps the American public might see development aid for the more beneficent purposes it serves.—Rick Cohen