July 6, 2006
by Lyric Wallwork Winik
When it comes to foreign aid, the U.S. government ranks near the bottom: Based on percentage of gross national income given to impoverished countries, we’re No. 21 out of 22 among donor nations—barely ahead of Italy. (After World War II, the U.S. gave 15% of its budget; today, it’s less than 1%.) Meanwhile, the world often sees the military as our main form of global outreach. “People are calling America stingy,” says foreign-aid expert Carol Adelman, who created the Index of Global Philanthropy for the Hudson Institute. “But Americans give abroad the way they do at home: through private institutions.”
Adelman’s new index calculates that Americans—from the superwealthy to those with modest means—donate more than 3 1/2 times what Washington gives. Private gifts topped $71 billion in 2004 (the latest figure available), including $442 million for global health from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Created by the software mogul and his wife, the foundation has given $6 billion to date to help eradicate diseases worldwide. On a smaller but equally effective scale, community foundations like one in San Diego give “microloans” and grants to help entrepreneurs start small businesses in Mexico, China and elsewhere.
Many Americans find ways to give other than cash. The CEO of Overstock.com created Worldstock to help poor and disabled artisans sell their crafts worldwide. Architecture for Humanity creates shelters after wars or disasters. A Methodist Church near Baltimore built a home for AIDS orphans in Namibia.
Does all this private giving let Washington off the hook? No. And Carol Adelman says the government could learn a lot from the private programs, which—to get money and volunteers—have to prove that their projects work. “Public-private partnerships between government and charities would more effectively use every dollar of aid,” she adds.
This Op-ed was originally featured on Parade.com
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