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US views of aid: scepticism mixed with good will

In the past decade there have been notable changes in the economic and political role of the United States in the international community, in US relations with the Third World, and within the Third World countries themselves. Yet the question of how US public opinion has responded to, or been reflected by, these changes has not attracted much serious analysis. In an effort to fill this gap two non-governmental organizations, the Overseas Development Council in Washington, DC, and Interaction of New York, have recently published a comprehensive study which suggests that Americans in general consider international development issues and US relations with the Third World to be less important than - or even to conflict with - domestic problems and other US foreign policy objectives. The survey also found that Americans have negative perceptions of Third World governments and are sceptical about the effectiveness of aid and aid agencies. On the positive side, the study reported that "public support of US economic aid for the developing countries is firmly rooted in humanitarian concern and a sense of responsibility."

The report, entitled What Americans Think: Views on Development and US.-Third World Relations, based its findings on four distinct research elements covering legislators, politically and socially active Americans, a sample of the general public, and focused group discussions. (See box.) Among the highlights of the study:

To most Americans, developing countries and their problems seem physically and culturally remote. Eighty per cent of the "activist" group characterized themselves as "not knowing enough about Third World countries and their problems". A majority of Americans (56 per cent) believed that living conditions in the Third World have stagnated or deteriorated over the last decade. Only 32 per cent believed that conditions have improved.

Americans have strong negative perceptions of Third World governments, but not of the people of those countries. Eighty-eight per cent of the general public believed that aid is frequently misused by foreign governments. Among the activist group, 58 per cent believed that corrupt governments are a very serious problem in Third World countries. Only 18 per cent considered "people who do not work hard enough" to be a serious problem in developing countries.

Despite current pressures on the US budget, a majority of Americans - 54 per cent - favoured US economic assistance to other countries, a level of support that has remained remarkably steady for nearly 40 years. Seventy-eight per cent of the general public agreed that as a leading nation in the world, the United States should set an example by helping poor nations. Nearly 90 per cent agreed with the statement that "wherever people are hungry or poor we ought to do what we can to help them." And 75 per cent of Americans believed that helping the Third World will also benefit the United States in the long run. Americans consider economic assistance a legitimate tool to use in pursuing US political or strategic objectives, but are concerned that such objectives are not always achieved.

The major reasons given by Americans for favouring economic assistance reflect a humanitarian desire to help other people. Relief for victims of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and drought were given high priority by 74 per cent of the general public sample, but long term development programmes perceived to deliver assistance most directly to needy people - programmes such as health care, education of family planning, assistance to farmers, and US voluntary programmes were also given high priority by a majority of respondents.

Strong support for agricultural assistance, the cornerstone of long term development efforts throughout much of the Third World, was high lighted by the fact that 87 per cent of the general public agreed that "we should help farmers in other countries learn to grow their own food, even if it means they buy less food from the United States." This response seems to indicate that Americans are willing to give domestic interests lower priority if the needs of the Third World are clearly perceived to be greater.

Yet even while they support assistance efforts, most Americans doubt the effectiveness of aid. Among general public respondents, 85 per cent believed that a large part of aid is wasted by the US bureaucracy. Of those who had made contributions during the past 12 months to private agencies working overseas, about three out of four has "just some" or "little" confidence that money given to such organizations reaches the needy. Among the activist group 94 per cent believed that much foreign aid never reaches the people who need it.

Beyond this general pessimism as to how aid is used, considerable opposition to economic assistance is rooted in domestic self-interest. Two thirds of the general public and nearly three quarters of the activists cited domestic poverty, the US budget deficit, or general US problems as reasons for opposing aid. Two out of three Americans strongly agreed with the statement that "we need to solve our own poverty problems before we turn our attention to other countries." Four out of five activists believed that the United States should take care of its own financial problems before helping debt-burdened developing countries.

For the international development community, the study's findings may represent a rather confused picture of positive and negative attitudes. On the positive side are evidence of widespread feelings of humanitarian concern, a sense of responsibility toward other countries, and generally steady support for the concept of US economic assistance. Counteracting this are signs that the general public remains poorly informed on foreign policy issues, is unaware how the US aid efforts compare with those of other developed countries, and believes that much aid is wasted or ineffective.

Frances Vieta