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It’s been over a month since the devastating earthquake in Haiti. So far, we’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of grief and a strong show of solidarity with the Haitian people, as well as a promising commitment from the international community to help the country rebuild.

Have we given enough, though? And has the U.S. done enough?

I recently revisited an interesting blog post by Nick Kristof, in which writes:

"I was delighted that the White House denounced as "utterly stupid" the Rev. Pat Robertson’s suggestion that Haiti had suffered its earthquake because it had made a "pact with the devil," and as "really stupid" the comment by Rush Limbaugh that Americans already donate to Haiti through tax dollars — which many took to mean that he discouraged giving, a suggestion he has strongly denied…"

"First, a fact check. In 2008, the most recent year for which we have figures, the United States donated 92 cents per American to Haiti. Granted, any year can fluctuate, so look at three-year totals. The United States contributed $2.32 per American to Haiti over the last three years for which we have data (about 80 cents a year). That’s much less than other countries do, even though Haiti is in our hemisphere and has historic close ties to the U.S. For example, Canada contributed $12.13 per person to Haiti over three years, and Norway sent $8.44."

Kristof’s numbers breakdown reminds me of one of the most widespread misperceptions in U.S. policy and politics: the absurd belief that the U.S. government "gives away" an excessive amount of foreign aid every year. Rush Limbaugh might use an extremist bullhorn, but unfortunately his views on foreign aid are shared by many across the political and social spectrum.

Consider a striking survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that 41% of those polled believed that foreign aid is one of of the two largest areas of U.S. federal spending. (While the survey was done in 1995, its results still largely reflect widely held American beliefs and attitudes, as confirmed by more recent representative polling.)

What’s the truth about U.S. development and humanitarian efforts? According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2006 the United States spent a sum of $27.6 billion on development assistance (with over a third of that going to Iraq reconstruction efforts). In absolute terms, this 2006 figure looks big, but it is absolutely tiny compared to the $620+ billion that the U.S. spent on defense-related items that same year. No matter what you think about our government’s budget-making, this much is clear: too many of us have a warped picture of what our country does in the international aid arena.

While ordinary Americans’ collective response to the Haiti earthquake has been largely inspiring, I think there’s a danger that we will forget Haiti’s crisis given our misperceptions of what constitutes enough and too much in the practical and moral universe of foreign aid. In other words, if we think that our tax dollars are being spent very heavily (and too heavily) on international assistance, then we’re more likely to advocate for a dangerous stinginess in foreign aid over the longer term.

Your thoughts?

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