Support for Economic Aid Only Modestly Dampened By Economic Downturn

January 25, 2012

Public Opinion on Global Issues homepage
Stewart Patrick analysis

As the World Economic Forum begins its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, amid concerns that the economic slowdown in the wealthy countries is undermining public support for economic aid, newly updated digests of American and international public opinion reveal continued underlying public support for development assistance to poor countries, though there has been a slight softening of support in the United States.

In the European Union, very large majorities in all 27 member states support aid to people in developing countries, and majorities in 25 of them say that the EU should fulfill its past pledge to increase aid, despite the economic downturn. In the United States support for economic aid in principle has softened a bit but still commands the backing of a large majority. At the same time, public support for aid levels continues to be weakened by extreme overestimations about the amount of the U.S. budget that actually goes to aid.

These digests have been developed by the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program and the Program on International Policy Attitudes. They provide comprehensive analyses of international and U.S. polls on the world’s most pressing challenges — and the institutions designed to address them. The digest of international polling on economic development can be found here and the digest of U.S. polling here. Analysis of these findings by CFR’s Stewart Patrick can be found on his blog.

Very large majorities in all twenty-seven European Union member states think it is important to “help people in developing countries” (Eurobarometer 2010). On average, 89 percent took this position while only nine percent said it was not important. Publics most supportive of aid included those in Sweden (96 percent), Ireland (95 percent), as well as Denmark, Finland, and Spain (all 94 percent). The lowest majority among countries polled was a still robust 79 percent in Bulgaria.

Most significant, majorities of Europeans are willing to stand behind past pledges to increase aid, even in the midst of the financial crisis. Respondents were told “The European Union has promised to increase the level of its aid towards developing countries” and asked “Given the current economic situation” whether the E.U. should increase aid to the level promised, increase it above the level promised, not increase aid, or reduce it. Majorities in 25 of the 27 countries favored keeping the pledge. On average, 64 percent said the EU should keep its promise by increasing aid (50%), with some (14%) saying aid should be increased beyond promised levels. Fifteen percent said aid should not be increased and 14 percent said it should be reduced.

In the United States, majorities continue to support economic aid in principle, though the size of the majorities appears to have diminished. In a 2010 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA), as compared to 2004, those favoring the provision of “food and medical assistance” abroad slipped from 82 to 74 percent support, and “aid to help needy countries develop their economies” from 70 to 62 percent support in 2010 poll by the Council on Global Affairs.

As in years past, Americans tend to say that their government should cut back on economic aid, but this attitude seems to rest on persistent, extreme overestimations of how much the United States is spending. Sixty percent of Americans said in the 2010 CCGA poll said that their government should cut back on economic aid to other nations–up from 55 percent in 2008.

But when a 2010 poll asked respondents to estimate the percentage of the federal budget going to foreign aid, respondents on average reckoned 27 percent (median 25 percent). Most significantly, when asked what an appropriate percentage would be, the average response was 13 percent (median: 10 percent)–or ten times the actual percentage. Similar responses have been found in previous polls for decades now.

When Americans were asked to deal with the budget in some detail as part of a larger exercise for reducing the deficit, they did not single out foreign aid, especially its more altruistic forms for cuts. A representative sample of Americans in an online exercise was presented with the U.S. discretionary budget, broken out into 31 areas, and given the opportunity to make changes as they saw fit, getting constant feedback about the impact of their decisions on the deficit (Program for Public Consultation 2011). Respondents actually increased levels of humanitarian aid by 18 percent on average, and only lightly nicked global health (cut 2 percent); development assistance received a bit more in cuts (14 percent). Combined, respondents cut these three programs just 3 percent–even in the context of seeking to reduce the federal budget deficit. This was significantly less than the average cut of 11 percent they advocated across the 31 programs. Respondents did make substantial cuts, however, to U.S. aid programs with less altruistic and more strategic objectives: the Economic Support Fund (cut 23 percent) and military aid (cut 15 percent).


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