Sidebar: The Ethics of U.S. Foreign Aid

By Robert Wuthow

Critics of U.S. aid argue that it could be far more generous than it is. Although the U.S. gives more in absolute dollar amounts to foreign aid than other countries, its foreign aid contributions amount to approximately 0.1 percent of Gross Domestic Product, placing it last among the world’s wealthiest countries in that comparison. Critics question whether U.S. aid is sufficiently motivated by humanitarian aims or is driven by such strategic interests as deterring communism or stabilizing regions through support for authoritarian regimes.

To the extent that these criticisms are warranted, it is puzzling that religious groups have not been able to bring more pressure on officials to expand foreign aid. Among grassroots Christians, there would seem to be strong support for government efforts to help the needy in other countries. Since the early 1970s, national polls have consistently shown that reducing world hunger is a foreign policy goal supported by most Americans. In a Global Issues survey, 60 percent of churchgoers thought “combating world hunger should be a very important foreign policy goal of the U.S.” This view was shared among all the major denominational traditions, with the highest support from black Protestants (74 percent) and Catholics (64 percent), followed by evangelical and mainline Protestants (each 56 percent).

Other questions elicited even more support for U.S. engagement. Eighty-seven percent (with no significant variation among denominations) said they favored the U.S. “doing more to supply medical help to people in poor countries.” More than three- quarters agreed “there should be major new efforts, led by charitable and religious groups, with some taxpayer support, to make sure that fewer people in poor countries suffer from hunger and malnutrition.”

However, American Christians also hold mixed views toward poor countries and thus have ambivalent feelings about how much the U.S. government should be involved. On the one hand, various reasons for helping people in other countries resonate with many American Christians. For instance, 48 percent say that “God does not want poor people to suffer” is a very good argument for doing more to fight world hunger. Thirty-five percent think “the U.S. has a moral responsibility to help the poor in other countries” is also a good argument.

On the other hand, 31 percent of American Christians think looking out for people in our own country is a very good reason not to help people in other countries. And more than four in ten worry that the money Americans spend helping people in other countries is wasted.

– Robert Wuthnow