Special feature: Ghana, grandma and the factors affecting American public opinion on foreign aid

The U.S. Agency for International Development joins chiefs, traditional leaders and people of Elmina to celebrate the annual Bakatue Festival in the central region of Ghana, where the aid agency works with fisher folk, fishmongers and communities to rebuild dwindling fish stocks along the country’s coasts. Photo by: U.S. Embassy Ghana / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — A number of important lessons emerge as we look at the history and trends around U.S. public opinion toward foreign assistance over the past 70 years. Perhaps most importantly, attitudes toward foreign assistance mirror, to a remarkable degree, shifts in the public’s trust in government. As faith in government slid at key points such as the Vietnam War and the period surrounding the Republican takeover of Congress by Newt Gingrich in 1994, the numbers of people saying we spend too much on foreign aid spiked.

Foreign Aid and American Public Opinion series

In this series on the history of development, Devex contributor John Norris examines more than 60 years of polling on opinions toward aid to better understand effective messaging, common misperceptions the public has about development, and some myths the development community has about public opinion. In this second article, a look at how messaging shapes the way the public reacts to assistance.

Read part 1: A history of American public opinion on foreign aid and part 3: American public opinion on aid in the Trump era

This makes a lot of sense: If you don’t trust the government, your confidence that it will effectively hand out money thousands of miles away to foreign governments is probably low. At moments when there was greater national unity and more popular governments — such as during the Reagan era and after September 11 — the public was more likely to approve of assistance spending.  

Below are two graphs. The first graph, the percentage of Americans who think we spend too much on aid, appeared in the first part of this series. The second graph, the percentage of Americans who believe the government in Washington will do what is right, is almost a perfect inversion of the first.

Percentage of Americans who think the U.S. spends too much on foreign aid.

Percentage of Americans who say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right.

This lockstep between views toward assistance and general faith in government numbers will likely continue. There has been some modest separation in these trends over the past several years, which may be a reflection of how historically bad the trust in government numbers have gotten in recent years amid an atmosphere of hyper-partisanship. It is an important reminder that changing attitudes on aid cannot be done in isolation, and that the foreign assistance programs simply rank very low in issues that concern the general public.

The question of “are we spending too much” on assistance is far from the only pertinent inquiry with regard to public opinion, although it is useful for historical comparison since it is one of the questions that has been polled most often with the most consistent wording. Polling on questions related to foreign assistance became much more varied as we moved into the 1970s and beyond, and these additional questions yielded some important results. One of the most immediate takeaways: How you ask questions about foreign assistance is vital.

When polls pit foreign assistance against domestic priorities, domestic priorities win. We see lots of polls over the past five decades where a clear majority of respondents, ranging from 52 to 63 percent, feel that foreign aid has clear utility and directly benefits the United States. But the findings of a December 2001 Global Engagement Survey are also quite typical. When posed the statement: “America should look out for its own interests and people first. Taxpayer money should not go to other nations when we have priorities in our country, like increasing access to health care, improving education, and making sure Social Security is there for future generations. These are hard economic times and we should concentrate our resources here,” 81 percent of respondents found the argument convincing on some level, and only 17 percent did not find it convincing at all.

This notion — or what Texas Representative Tom Delay once summed up as putting “Ghana ahead of grandma”— is a powerful political argument against aid and has always maintained salience. It is no accident that President Donald Trump’s team talked about putting money into domestic priorities instead of aid when it was announcing steep cuts in the assistance program (This will be discussed more in part three of the series.)

Refining the message

While there is no magic bullet to fight back against this line of reasoning, there are a number of insights that can make messaging around aid much more effective.

“Messaging has to do two things at once: be creative in explaining all the ways that fighting poverty is in U.S. national interests, and also remember that Americans are generous and you don’t always need an appeal to their selfish interests in order to do the right thing.”

— Paul O'Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America

First, just using the phrase “foreign economic assistance” or “foreign economic aid,” as opposed to just “foreign aid” or “foreign assistance” has a consistently positive correlation with people feeling that aid levels should be maintained or increased. This suggests that including an emphasis on economics helps respondents think of development programs as investments rather than a giveaway.

The second important point: Asking about specific topics within assistance — such as humanitarian relief, education or sanitation — almost always yields far more positive responses than asking about the development program as a whole. In essence, the parts have always been larger than the sum when it comes to aid.

Jim Kunder, a former deputy administrator at USAID, captures the paradox: “Everyone will dislike ‘foreign aid’ if you ask about that term, [but] most Americans will be willing to share their tax dollars to feed hungry children abroad, battle pandemic diseases abroad, support literacy abroad, and help nascent democracy movements abroad.” He adds, “Americans have a distaste for foreign aid in the abstract, and are supportive of its real-world components.”

This also helps explain the enduring popularity of the Millennium Development Goals with their clear focus on a small, specific, and measurable suite of goals and targets — a lesson that sadly went out the window with the drafting of their successor Sustainable Development Goals. In repeated polls, support for increasing assistance for areas such as basic education, basic health care, opening new markets, strengthening democracy and environmental protection was more than 50 percent, and usually about twice the level of people saying funding for foreign aid in general should be increased.

So while experts may lament the stovepiping of development bureaucracy, it is also an unsurprising reaction to the public’s preference for specific branding. It is easy to dismiss “foreign aid” as, well, foreign. It is much harder not to feel a pang of guilt when someone is asked if we should feed hungry children, make drinking water clean or help a poor schoolgirl learn to read.

One downside of issue-by-issue advocacy may be that the broader concept of building capable institutions in partner countries may lack support because it isn’t particularly sexy. Most of USAID’s budget is dedicated to global health and humanitarian relief, and both maintain enduring popularity. However, they may also be driving an aid program that concentrates more on symptoms than systems. As Kunder argues, “The real way to ensure that children in developing countries will not suffer from malnutrition or preventable childhood diseases, over time, is to strengthen programs that support free market economic growth, and programs that spur democratic, participatory political systems,” while adding, “It’s so much easier, and produces so much more ‘feel good,’ to deliver bed nets and Plumpy’nut packets; to treat symptoms.”

For development experts who have helped contribute to major diseases being eradicated, billions of people being lifted out of extreme poverty, and the quality life reaching probably its highest level in human history, the idea that aid doesn’t work feels like a particularly unjust public misconception. Eradicating smallpox and almost doing the same for polio has saved the United States tens of billions of dollars, and been a wise investment by almost any measure. Eight of America’s top ten export markets are former aid recipients, many of them, such as South Korea, were once deemed as hopeless development basket cases.

But while many in the aid community feel frustrated that the public doesn’t have a better understanding that aid has been effective, they have been less willing to acknowledge that their own messaging has at times undercut the notion of progress. Although InterAction and most major NGOs have clear guidelines that avoid exploitive images, the public is still bombarded with lots of images of sad, emaciated children with runny noses and prominent ribcages both on the news and in the funding appeals of some less forward thinking NGOs. Why? Because news tends to be sensational and some NGOs remain convinced that images of downtrodden kids have the highest rates of return. And to be fair, realistic views of the situation on the ground today in places like Syria and Yemen are horrifying.

But the emotional imagery comes with a cost. Polling data suggests that while it works well in provoking a positive response from those who are already inclined to support aid programs and donate money, it is largely ineffective in convincing people who are skeptical of aid or simply unsure about these programs. To put it in political parlance, sad images don’t do much to move independents nor undecideds.

Even worse, the steady diet of sad children on TV screens reinforces the notion that things are just not getting better in the developing world. There were pictures of poor sad kids when Sally Struthers was asking for donations in the 1980s, and those images still look the same today. So, like using security as a justification for aid, relying on images of the poor as victims is a two-edged sword: it is an effective means to gather support that simultaneously drives skepticism regarding the efficacy of aid programs as a whole.

Using a security frame for messaging, whether it was the anti-communism of the 1940s-1990s or anti-terrorism since 2001, has been a profoundly mixed bag in terms of public perceptions.

Similarly, using a security frame for messaging — whether it was the anti-communism of the 1940s through 1990s or anti-terrorism since 2001 — has been a profoundly mixed bag in terms of public perceptions. On the pro side, the public is often responsive to arguments couched in security concerns. These appeals are simple, direct and often touch an emotional core among respondents. In addition, the U.S. military has been an increasingly vocal advocate for the utility of development programs, and those voices carry weight on Capitol Hill.

There is also a real dilemma here for the development community. Yes, anti-communism was the most effective way to sell the Marshall Plan and many of the aid programs that followed, just as the assistance budget roughly doubled after the events of September 11, 2001, and assistance was again seen as a clear part of the national security toolbox. Many aid implementers are now preparing to pitch aid programs to the Trump administration as part of the toolbox for countering violent extremism.

But it has been the willingness of the U.S. government to hand out assistance based on security considerations that has led to almost all of the most high-profile disasters in the U.S. foreign aid program. U.S. aid, often at great expense, propped up a whole series of notoriously corrupt regimes. Ronald Reagan declared President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire "a voice of good sense and good will” as Mobutu looted his country with impunity.

Zaire was certainly not an isolated case. Billions of dollars in Vietnam, Pakistan, Iraq, Haiti and Central America went into regimes whose commitment to development at times verged on the almost nonexistent. And the result of all this? The American public has always been deeply concerned that foreign aid is ineffective because it flows to the corrupt. Across all surveys reviewed from 1972-2001, an average of 74 percent of respondents agreed that there was misuse/corruption in foreign aid/assistance, with only an average of 17 percent disagreeing with these sentiments.

The public has not been fond of some of the big cornerstone recipients of geo-strategic aid. For example, a 1995 PIPA poll found that the only two countries where a majority of respondents wanted to cut aid were Israel and Egypt. Conversely, 58 percent of respondents in a poll from the same year agreed that they would be willing to pay more taxes for foreign aid “If I knew that most foreign aid was going to the poor people who really need it, rather than to wasteful bureaucracies and corrupt governments.”

Some in the aid community have been less than honest with themselves about the corrosiveness of working with unsavory partners. There is a tendency by aid practitioners to view these strategic priority countries as places where they are forced by the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and the State Department to work, so they somehow shouldn’t be counted against their grade in terms of effectiveness. The public isn’t buying that argument — nor should it.

If the aid community has at times over-relied on security arguments as the basis for its work, it has probably under-relied on the moral case. Nongovernment organizations do make the moral argument in their grassroots appeals for funding, but have often shied away from this approach inside the Beltway and with policymakers.

Helping the poorest of the poor is the right thing to do. There is considerable evidence that such an argument resonates on both ends of the political spectrum. Feeding the hungry and caring for the sick works with conservative faith-based groups and progressives alike. A November 2000 survey on Foreign Aid and World Hunger not atypically found that when asked if, “The United States should be willing to share at least a small portion of its wealth with those in the world who are in great need,” 35 percent of respondents agreed strongly and 44 percent agreed somewhat.

Paul O'Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America argues, “Messaging has to do two things at once: be creative in explaining all the ways that fighting poverty is in U.S. national interests, and also remember that Americans are generous and you don’t always need an appeal to their selfish interests in order to do the right thing.”

So in many ways, the American public — often viewed as hopelessly out of touch on aid issues — has had a more effective view of assistance than policymakers over the past several decades. The public supports aid that goes to specific and measurable targets in countries that are willing to tackle corruption, and they view U.S. assistance as a useful part of a broader multilateral collaborative effort. That is a remarkably sensible blueprint for effective aid, and the American public was well ahead of institutions such as the World Bank in recognizing the crucial role that effective, transparent governance plays in economic and social development.

Countering the 20 percent misperception

But that brings us back to everyone’s favorite statistic about the public thinking 20 percent of the federal budget is committed to foreign aid. Indeed, during the 1990s, development supporters launched a “just percent” campaign to help shift public opinion on this issue.

Source: Conducted by Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland

When Devex asked more than 400 development leaders why they thought the American public believed foreign aid funding was much more than what it actually is, they expressed many different reasons for the wrong public views. The relative balance in their responses suggest that the misperceptions could be driven by multiple factors working together.

Click here to see a larger version of this chart.

There may be other reasons to take into account. First and foremost, the public is really lousy at guessing how much things cost in the federal budget. The budget is huge and complicated, and many respondents when asked in these polls what percentage of the budget aid makes up are more than happy to say that they have no idea. For example in a 1979 poll, a whopping 76 percent of respondents answered that they didn’t know when asked that question, and most polls average at least one-quarter of respondents saying they don’t know when asked.

Also, because aid makes up about 1 percent of the budget, the error rate for responses is almost always going to be on the high side when a guess is ventured. If you ask people about small items in the budget, say those that come in at 1 percent or less, it is almost a certainty that they will guess a number or percentage that is much too large, partly because it is almost impossible to guess a percentage that is too low. One almost suspects that pollsters love including foreign assistance in the budget question because they know the public will get it so resoundingly wrong; it has become everyone’s favorite trick question.

Polls consistently suggest that respondents are relatively sanguine with aid spending when they are informed that it is only 1 percent of the budget. Taking the average from all the surveys from 1995-2016, 33 percent of people who were told the U.S. spends 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign aid believed the U.S. spent too little on aid, and 38 percent of people thought spending was about right, combining for a comfortable majority. However, qualms quickly reappear in polling if those aid levels are expressed in actual dollar terms rather than as a budget percentage.

It is also very possible that people over-estimate the amount of spending on aid because they conflate it with U.S. military engagement overseas. The data is rather murky here, and questions are not usually framed to make clear if this is the case or not. Many Americans may view some defense expenditures, such as the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea or Japan, as a form of foreign aid. And in some cases, the view toward foreign aid may simply be a proxy for the public’s view of foreign entanglements at any given moment in current affairs.

In a recent survey by the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, the authors tried to determine which arguments were most effective in moving respondent opinion on aid in either a more positive or negative direction. As the authors noted, emphasizing the low cost of aid moved the most people in a favorable direction, while bringing up corruption was the easiest way to evoke a hostile reaction toward aid. Interestingly, the survey also found that respondents were surprisingly willing to shift their opinions based on new information, something of a rarity in today’s highly polarized political environment where people often have an ideologically rooted resistance to information that might change their views.

So what emerges is a complex picture for messaging around development: Be cognizant that aid is part of a much larger stream of public opinion toward government. Speak of specifics rather than the aid agenda as a whole, while ensuring that the aid agenda retains a focus on institutions and systems. Remind people again and again that the aid budget is smaller than they think. Have concrete examples of success close at hand. Realize that corruption is a cancer that steadily devours public support for aid. Find a balance between moral arguments, security concerns, and self-interest. Keep it simple and keep it clean.

As George Ingram, a senior fellow at Brookings, observed “Speak to the heart; follow it with facts. I learned that almost 20 years ago when media stories of girls in Afghanistan being denied access to schools first opened policymakers' hearts — and then their minds — to the facts on how investment in educating girls can bring them social protection and economic opportunities, and allow them to contribute to the development of their communities and country.”

This is part two of a three part series on American public opinion on foreign aid. Read part 1: A history of American public opinion on foreign aid, which includes information on the methodology, and part 3: American public opinion on aid in the Trump era. Visit USAID: A history of US foreign aid for more coverage.

About the author

  • John Norris

    John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the executive director of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress and was chief of political affairs for the U.N. Mission in Nepal back when the country was emerging from a decadelong war. Earlier in his career, John worked at the State Department and USAID.