The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans love to hate foreign aid, but the right argument makes them like it a lot more

A woman carries a bag containing rice donated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as she walks through a market in the Haitian city of Leogane, days after a powerful earthquake hit Haiti in January 2010. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Few government initiatives suffered more at the hands of Donald Trump’s initial budget proposal than foreign aid. As of this moment, a less-draconian congressional spending agreement is in the works, but Trump has made it clear he does not like it and will continue to push for huge cuts.

100 days in, Trump’s foreign policy appears to be all show. Is there enough substance?

Trump’s initial proposal cut the State Department budget by nearly 30 percent (see figure below). State, as the home of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), administers most U.S. development programs. Even as members of the administration applauded proposed cuts as a reprioritization of U.S. over foreign needs, experts highlighted the deleterious effects of these cuts on the developing world — as well as on U.S. interests.

Would Americans have let Trump pull off such a drastic cut? Possibly — Americans are notoriously uninformed on how much their government actually spends on aid. Multiple studies have illustrated that foreign aid spending accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Nevertheless, the average American pegs this figure at around 26 percent.

This misperception likely contributes to an overall disdain among Americans for foreign aid. In recent surveys by the Council on Foreign Relations, only 31 percent of European respondents indicated that their respective governments spent “too much” on foreign aid. But nearly twice that percentage (59 percent) of Americans surveyed gave the same answer.

This low opinion on foreign aid is one likely reason the United States actually spends less on aid as a percentage of GDP than any other developed country. And despite difficulties in establishing a causal relationship between public sentiment and aid spending, some scholarship suggests that if Americans warmed up to the idea of aid, the United States would give more of it — or at least resist the sort of deep cuts proposed in the latest federal budget.

Which arguments shift American public opinion on foreign aid?

Given these high stakes, we set out to test which arguments prove most effective in swaying U.S. opinions on aid. We looked at academic debates as well as popular views of U.S. aid spending and identified commonly invoked arguments by those who oppose and champion foreign aid.

Foreign aid can help combat anti-Western sentiment in Bangladesh

Those against spending money on foreign aid claimed it’s expensive, doesn’t work, breeds dependency and conflict and interferes with the free market, and they assert that the money is lost to corruption.

We identified these five pro-aid arguments: it’s inexpensive, effective, could potentially have a positive impact, serves U.S. interests, and there is a strong need for it.

We then gathered five facts that supported each of these arguments. For example, to support the idea that aid is inexpensive, we told respondents that:

1) The average American believes the foreign aid budget is 25 percent of the total federal government budget.

2) The U.S. foreign aid budget is less than 1 percent of the total budget.

3) Only 1 percent of the U.S. foreign aid budget goes to operating costs of U.S. government agencies.

4) The United States provides $30 billion for programs that assist the needy around the world. Around $663 billion goes to military spending.

5) In 1970, the world’s rich countries agreed to give 0.7 percent of their gross national income as foreign aid. Although most countries have not reached this goal, five have exceeded it. At 0.2 percent, the United States is far behind.

We then tested the impact of these arguments among a randomly selected but somewhat unrepresentative sample of 3,000 American users on Amazon’s online work marketplace Mechanical Turk. We randomly assigned each participant to read an argument and set of facts — or no argument at all. We found that arguments emphasizing the low cost (pro-aid) or high cost of aid (anti-aid), the need for aid (pro-aid), and aid’s ties to corruption (anti-aid) were the most effective in changing attitudes toward foreign aid and did so in the expected directions.

In our second experiment, we retested this handful of “winning” arguments on a sample of about 1,300 Americans that is representative in terms of age, education, sex and political ideology. The results, shown in the chart below, were nearly identical to the first experiment.

A pro-aid argument emphasizing the low cost of aid and an anti-aid argument emphasizing aid’s connection with corruption had the largest impact. For example, only 28 percent of those who read the pro-aid argument that the United States spends little on foreign aid thought that the United States spent too much — compared with 67 percent among those who read no pro/con argument at all.

In this experiment, we also presented the strongest opposing arguments simultaneously to see which would “triumph” in head-to-head competition. This mimics news coverage, which frequently presents both sides of the debate — as do three of the four articles linked above.

The head-to-head competition often lessens the impact of arguments compared with when they were presented by themselves. But the “the U.S. spends relatively little on aid” argument continued to matter even when respondents also saw the argument about the high cost of aid or the argument about how aid breeds corruption. In these cases, the proportion of respondents saying that foreign aid was too high fell by about 10 percent, compared with the group that saw no argument, and the percentage who said the amount of aid was “about right” increased.

Americans are refreshingly rational about adjusting their opinions

Although respondents in the control group demonstrated predictably significant pessimism toward aid, respondents grew more supportive/pessimistic when exposed to pro-aid/anti-aid information. These seemingly unremarkable results deviate from similar experiments, which have demonstrated people often have an ideologically rooted resistance to information that might change their views. In some cases, there are “backfire effects” — the added information actually dampens support if the subject holds an opposing position to that supported by the information.

These trends feel especially relevant in the current climate of extreme polarization. Of course, we recognize that our results may not have been so clean if the issue under debate had been health care or global warming.

On this particular issue, though, there seems a clear prescription: If you want to get Americans to support government spending on foreign aid, tell them how little the government currently spends.

Reuben Hurst is a graduate of Dartmouth College and London School of Economics. He will start a PhD course at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in the fall. 

 Darren Hawkins is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

Taylor Tidwell is a graduate of Brigham Young University and in a PhD program at the University of Kansas.