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Navigating Using Our Signs of Hope
We’ve all heard the persistent myth among the U.S. public that the country spends about a quarter of its budget on foreign aid. I’ve never heard very much about why this is not only a majority view, but such a strongly-held view that some people don’t believe the facts when they hear them. These facts are -- as many of us can probably recite by rote anytime, anywhere -- that foreign aid is less than 1 percent of the budget, and, counting just poverty-focused development assistance, only 0.6 percent. Wherever that 25 percent "statistic" came from, it's been around for awhile, lending it credibility.
Of course, “the public” can be and is wrong about a lot of things. We all live in a complex world; individuals can’t help but have enormous gaps in their knowledge. But the repercussions of widespread belief in this particular myth are deadly because they hamper efforts to find and put into practice effective solutions to global hunger. This is a myth that costs lives.
For example, two years ago, as concern about the federal deficit and national debt began to rise sharply, a Bloomberg national poll found that more than 70 percent of Americans believed that Congress could find major savings in the federal budget by slashing foreign aid. As Tina Rosenberg wrote then, in The New York Times of March 11, 2011, "It's a new poll, but this is old news."
And it’s ironic, because Americans, regardless of party affilation, strongly support efforts to help hungry and poor people overseas. In a 2010 survey that got a lot of attention in the development community, the median response on the question of resources was the typical one, that 25 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid, but more importantly, respondents gave a median response of 10 percent as an appropriate amount. That would, of course, be more than a tenfold increase. Particularly in the polarized political climate we're still in, this support is a sign of hope.
The 2012 Chicago Council survey of Amerian foreign policy attitudes found that "Today, Americans seek a foreign policy characterized by extensive use of American diplomatic resources; by cooperation with other nations in the pursuit of common goals; and by selective, multilateral deployments of military force." That's another sign of hope.
Bread for the World Institute's new resource, Development Works: Myths and Realities, helps build support for development assistance among "the undecided" by showing, through stories and examples in clear, jargon-free language, what types of programs our tax dollars are paying for and why they work -- in addition to pointing out common misperceptions and facts that correct them. Dvelopment Works is available in .pdf format and in print as a compilation of seven short essays. Or download, for example, the first, "Development Assistance: Now Is the Time," with specific stories of farming in Ghana, or the second,"Americans Reaching Out," which includes a quick explanation of why development assistance supports common American values, not just the beliefs of one political party. Development Works illustrates some signs of hope and invites readers to act on them.
Photo: cover of Development Works #4: "Leadership and Teamwork: The U.S. Role in Development." Photo by Richard Lord for Bread for the World.
Michele Learner is associate editor for Bread for the World Institute.
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