“Why Do We Give So Much Foreign Aid?”

Posted on August 19, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The short answer to that question is “We don’t.”

It seems like every single day I pour myself a cup of joe, sit down in front of my laptop, log onto Facebook and prepare myself to see something in my news feed about the travesty of government waste that is foreign aid.

This is not my Conservative, ultra-right, Teabagging loony friends either (though admittedly, this brand of ignorance knows no ideological bounds). No- it is my Liberal, progressive and Libertarian friends too.

I posted a week ago dismantling an ignorant rant on the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) that mentioned foreign aid as a bit of wasteful government spending.  This was not posted by a right-wing ideologue.  This was posted by a close high school friend who is only slightly more conservative than I am.  This week I found this gem in my news feed, posted by one of my favorite bloggers and regular commenters on this blog, who could arguably be more left-leaning than I am on many issues:

foreign aid

Post reads: In Canada-we have to press “1” to speak English, In Canada-the homeless go without eating, In Canada-the elderly go without needed medicines, In Canada- the mentally ill go without treatment, In Canada-our troops go without proper equipment, In Canada-our Vets go without promised benefits, yet we donate billions to other countries before helping our own! Have the guts to re-post blahblah blah 1%,99% blah blah.

There are several (almost) good points raised by this little message.  We need to do more for the homeless.  We could do much more for the mentally ill.  We need a better social safety net- as good as our social safety net is (and I am more than proud of how much my government does) there is much room for improvement.  There are a few things about this post that really bother me though, so I want to clarify some things before I get to the main topic, which- as the title suggests- is foreign aid.

  • I think the author of this post (and anybody who posts it) should be ashamed of the sentiment that “pressing ‘1’ to speak English” is something worthy of complaining about.  We live in a bilingual country- and even if we did not- it should be common decency (and prudent business) that companies and governments would offer services to large linguistic minorities. Anyone who agrees with this sentiment has never lived somewhere where they were a linguistic minority and is just displaying their privileged ignorance.
  • I am relatively certain that the homeless in Canada do eat from time to time, so pedantically the statement “our homeless go without eating” is kind of an exaggeration. (and they are quite thankful that they are Canadian and therefor worthy of enough compassion for you to feel the need to feed them sometimes!)
  • I am sure that some elderly people lack proper medical care.  The fact that we have universal healthcare and a comprehensive drug benefit for seniors means that that problem is greatly mitigated.
  • Some mentally ill people go without treatment.  Again, to be pedantic- the claim that they, as a group,  “go without treatment” is an exaggeration.  Many do get treatment- and anyone who has worked or volunteered where they come in contact with the mentally ill will tell you that we can only dream of a world where diagnosis and treatment is near 100%, though admittedly we could do better.
  • We do not “help others before helping our own”.  That is a pernicious lie.  We help others decidedly after helping our own.  We have very comprehensive social programs that help all the groups listed in this post.  We spend >97% of our annual budget on “helping our own”.  That statement is the biggest crock of shit I have ever heard, and I have heard of Jenny McCarthy.

Foreign Aid:  How Much is “Too Much”?

How many billions of dollars do you think Canada spent on foreign aid in 2011-2012?

Guess. Go ahead….

If you said “4.9 billion dollars” then you obviously have access to Google.

That is a lot of money!  That’s, like, billions of dollars! That has to be too much, right?

Well, let’s think of it this way:

Foreign aid accounts for just 1.8% of the total budget.

Foreign aid accounts for 0.28% of GDP

Canada spends almost five times as much on both the military ($22.8B) and on health care transfers ($27.2B)

Almost twice as much went to Aboriginal Canadians ($7.7B) and to infrastructure and research grants ($7.5B)Sudan-Sud

Three times as much goes to unemployed Canadians through Employment Insurance ($17.6B)

You remember those poor elderly people nobody was helping?  They get eight times as much! ($38B)

So foreign aid is not a very big part of our budget.  In fact, Canada spends more than 95% of it’s income on Canadians.

Here is an analogy for you:  Dave makes $30,000 per year.  1.8% of his gross income is equal to $540.  If he bought a Medium Tim Horton’s coffee every day, he would spend more of his income on coffee than Canada does on foreign aid.  If he bought poutine three times a week, he would spend a larger percentage of his income than Canada spends on the rest of the world.  If he bought Pizza Pizza twice a month, he spent more than Canada does feeding the friggin’ whole earth as a percentage of his total income.

If you broke down how much aid money each and every Canadian gives, it amounts to $142.11

If you broke down how much each Canadian taxpayer gives, it amounts to $194.24

If you broke down how much each person in a country receiving aid gets, it amounts to $ 0.84

If you want to get specific:

Afghanistan received $316,723,017 in 2009/10- which is $10.41 per person.Untitled presentation

Ethiopia received $210,524,036 or $2.48 per person

Tanzania?  $144,688,573 or $3.13

Ghana?  $139,393,816 or $5.58

Pakistan?  $129,737,061 or $0.73

Mali?  $129,319,342 or $8.16

Sudan?  $127,475,967 or $3.71Untitled presentation (1)

Mozambique?  $125,247,658 or $5.23

Bangladesh? $120,642,458 or $0.80

Russia?  $118,659,885 or $0.83Untitled presentation (2)

So if you think that Canada cares more about foreigners than it does about Canadians- I really hope you think about these statistics.

What Has Foreign Aid Ever Done For Anybody?

You remember Polio?
It is all but eradicated thanks in part to foreign aid.  This has widely been considered a success by everyone, save iron lung manufacturers. And people who make crutches.

You remember Smallpox?

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

Totally gone!  No reported cases of a disease that has killed millions and millions of people over human history.  Zero dead people in the last 35 years. Zero.  None.  Guess what helped pay for that?

Hey, you remember when the global economy crashed in the late 1990’s and again in the early 2000’s- causing South Americans and then Asians to fall back into Third World status instead of continuing as emerging economies? Neither do I.

Do you remember when a desperate Russia crumbled under the weight of communism and untold masses of nuclear weapons fell into the hands of terrorists? Thankfully, neither do I.

Millions of lives have been saved with food aid.

Millions of lives have been saved with medical aid.

Afghan girls go to school, Africans don’t starve in greater numbers, we create the backbone of emerging economies with foreign aid.

Could more be done?  Sure!  Will more get done (or done better) if we tell the rest of the world to go it alone?  I don’t think so, and you are welcome to argue that in the comments.

Just because all the worlds problems haven’t been fixed in the fifty some-odd years we have had a focused foreign aid policy is no reason to say “Screw it” and give up.  If that was the case, we might as well have no Canadian welfare system, since poverty still exists.  We might as well stop funding to the mentally ill, since we pour billions into programs and still have people untreated.

Foreign aid is a geopolitical necessity- unless we want to ignore human suffering or be more interventionist (I’m talking military here).  Since I seem to like having a conscience and I’m under the impression that military occupations cost a fair amount of money (see Afghanistan), foreign aid- at least to the degree that we give- seems to be the least we could do.  When I say “the least”- I mean that in almost a literal sense.  We do very little.

So Do We Really Put Foreigners First?

As I already mentioned, the dirty, worthless foreigner who steals the most of our money is Joe Afghan.  He is going to pilfer $10.41 of your hard earned money.

Poor You, you only got $7650.

So you could keep enough of your hard earned tax dollars to buy the new Dan Brown book in softcover- or hundreds of Afghani girls could go to school.

If we just stopped giving foreign aid altogether, you could buy groceries for a family of four for about a week and a half with your $195 savings- and millions of human beings could suffer just a little bit more.  But hey, that’s like getting free groceries, right?

If giving every Canadian $7650 per year and every aid recipient $0.84 per year is “putting Canadians second”, you have some pretty questionable math skills. foraid Maybe that $4.9B needs to get spent on mathematics tutors.

In my opinion, the idea that we “spend too much foreign aid” comes from exactly the same place as the argument that English Canadians are hard done by because they need to press “1” to get an English operator.  It isn’t enough to have it better than someone else and give the least of concessions- those people need to feel grateful that we let them breath the same air.

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21 Responses to ““Why Do We Give So Much Foreign Aid?””

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Reblogged this on dyke writer and commented:
Wow. Gosh George I am blushing. this was a wonderful surprise to wake up to this morning.

and part of the issue of foriegn aid is that it’s complicated by most of it is done to prop up “friendly” governments or as partial compensation for what we and our allied nations have done

much like affirmative actions programs are compensation for social systemic and historic discrimination

so much of foriegn aid is compensation for colonialism and

or trying to ponzie scheme the global economy… after all a lot of aid used to be delivered in bearer bonds

what we need to to to identify government waste is look at the overall budget

not only what we are spending, but HOW we are spending

are systemic efficiencies and savings being achieved and best value for Canadians

wow.

I can’t beleive I even was able to type that last sentence without some emotional response….

I don’t want this post to stand as an absolute defense of HOW we spend foreign aid money. There is much room for improvement in that sphere, though I do not think Canada does a horrible job of distributing foreign aid.
The thrust of this post is that foreign aid is important and necessary and that it is not a waste of money regardless of current inefficiencies. I also wanted to convey that foreign aid is a very small part of our overall spending, and that people are easily confused by scale when people use words like “billions” or when someone implies that this “large” amount is proof that Canada puts foreign priorities first.

I could write an entire post on how to better target foreign aid- but I wanted to be very clear that I think foreign aid is both necessary and woefully underfunded.

In the past couple months I have gone from libertarian-leaning Republican (I’m American) to full on Anarcho-Capitalist. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a radical form of Libertarianism that thinks we might be able to pull off a stable society without a central coercive government. It’s theoretical rather than practical, but the logic is fun to play around with.

If you are at all interested in exposure to the ideas, I recommend Bryan Caplan as the highest profile current theorist/advocate.

http://econlog.econlib.org/authorbcaplan.html

Back in the 70’s, Milton Friedman’s son, David, wrote a book called “The Machinery of Freedom” where he fleshes out plausible sounding logic of how this type of world might work.

http://www.daviddfriedman.com/The_Machinery_of_Freedom_.pdf

Like I said, it’s very theoretical, but I’ve recently come to terms with how little individual control we have over the outcome of politics and I’m much happier since I’ve stopped worrying about what’s considered possible and devoting more time to what is simply “right.” I’m a much happier person now.

Sorry, this posted in the wrong place, this was meant as a reply to the reply to my earlier post bellow.

I can’t say that I agree with that Anarcho-Capitalism could work- even in theory. Even if it was theoretically possible, I can’t say that I would agree that it is even remotely desirable.
What is the strong opposition to government?
Do you really think organized democracy does more harm than good?

I do NOT think organized democracy does more harm than good. It lets people lead long comfortable lives. I do think that Anarcho-capitalism might be better, perhaps more so to the less fortunate than someone like me. I think the barriers we erect in modern society do more to protect the rich from too much competition in business and the un-poor from too much competition in labor. The truly poor (mostly in other countries) must depend on luck or handouts since they aren’t even allowed to work for willing employers for various reasons.

I’m no zealot. I’m not sure it would work, and I outright rejected it as impossible when I first heard about it. I do think it’s interesting though, and I wouldn’t mind seeing some experimentation with the idea.

I also don’t think it could come about through democratic means, anarcho-capitalism would only arise organically or spontaneously (not the violent kind of spontaneous), if people realize it could work. This will likely take decades or a couple generation if it’s ever going to happen, as each generation is different from the last and expectations change. But it’s more fun than worrying about what this or that politician does and who wins this or that election, when we’re basically just watching a movie play out.

yes. it’s the scare tactics of scapegoating

distraction to a hot button easy issue
away from real data and real concerns

well My Dad said to me to the day

that had I responded with violence to the situation

I would have gotten the medical support I needed

instead of being lurched from one application and denied process to the next

anyway, you gave me the boost I needed to do this post

so thank you for the blogsperation!

http://dykewriter.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/welcome-to-public-service-appreciation-week/

George,

Good points about Foreign Aid being a pittance. Do you have an opinion on immigration/open borders? Because it could arguably do more for foreigners without actually having to physically give them money.

Some believe it could double world GDP.

Live in a war torn country with no chance at a passable life unless a western country sees fit to take pity on you? What if you could move to that country instead, get a job where there actually are jobs and infrastructure, and escape your unfortunate lot in life?

Hugely complicated subject than I only just glossed over, but have you ever thought about it?

Mike,
That topic is in itself worthy of a whole post.
My short answer is that there is not the political will to do something like that, the logistics are tricky, and it would require an immense amount of planning and foresight to realize a serious increase to global GDP.
Though I consider it an interesting idea, there are ways to increase global GDP and productivity that are more easily implemented and practical- even if they are less than ideal. The first thing that comes to mind is a global “living wage” and tariff laws designed to give corporate incentives for development in targeted economies.
I might write a post on this in the future. My urge to write lately has been centered around economics, and this might be an opportunity to talk about economic solutions as opposed to just lecturing people about Facebook posts.
If you have any feedback, I’d appreciate it- and it might help direct where a future post might focus.
Thanks for the positive feedback.

See my initial reply to this above (accidentally on a different post), but directly in reference to open borders, you could take a look at this website. http://openborders.info/

I’m interested in knowing your thoughts on The Venus Project, but it’s a large topic that may require a post of its own.

weebitotnt,
I am working on a post about the Venus Project. It should be done within the week.

We see how much foreign aid helped in Haiti. The Clintons have a nice luxury hotel there now. It employs almost 100 people! Pay no attention to the million or so people starving and bathing in toilet water.

Atticus,
Are you arguing in good conscience that foreign aid is a bad thing because it hasn’t “solved” poverty? Really?
Or are you arguing that we ought to increase foreign aid because we are not giving enough to make a significant difference?
I’ll address your concerns, but I need to know what they are…..

The foreign aid and blind charity is precisely why Haiti is still in ruins! The main reason why the country in the first place was a poverty stricken place was because of corrupt leader (mostly because America ousted every leader which they didn’t like, mostly because it went against government interest).Giving free money to those countries will not help as there are greedy, power-hungry officials everywhere you look!

With a competent government Haiti could become a prosperous country (similar to Libya in a sense, look at Libya before and after Gaddafi is astonishing!).

You’re are COMPLETELY missing the point, foreign aid does NOT help the country! I repeat it does not help the country! The only people who are getting “help” ie. getting rich of this aid are corrupt leaders! Look at Mubarak as an example. Look at how much foreign aid he got, when more half of his country was living below the poverty line and many earning less than $1 a day! His family members ALL when to western school (cost a lot), had mansions, fancy cars, expensive trips etc etc. Even leaders of poorer revenue countries like Tanzania their presidents and dictators live the LAVISH life! Much more lavish than the middle class in Canada!

Trade, and business will help those countries, but giving out benefits to their corrupt leaders (main reason why most of those countries have poor citizens to begin with).

Attributing the abolishment of polio to foreign aid is like attributing the first moon landing to rocket fuel. This article grossly oversimplifies the issue.

Wow. The more i read and think the worse it gets. The idea that every person in the country needs the aid, the idea that the government is absolutely the best mechanism to distribute this aid. The idea that giving it to other countries will ensure it’s spent well. You cry ignorance while you miss enormous parts of the discussion yourself. 5 billion regardless of the percentage it represents or how many pennies a person that equals cab still go a long way and buy an awful lot when not wasted.

Foreign aid is very important for the economy, we gain strategic partners and our economy is also benefiting in a long run.


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