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Survey says Americans still clueless on foreign aid spending

The Kaiser Foundation has published its annual survey on the American public’s attitudes regarding global health and foreign aid.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the 2013 survey has discovered (these are my words) that most Americans have no clue as to how much we spend on foreign aid, where it is spent or why.

Below is one graph from the Kaiser report that assesses what participants think once they learn we only spend about one percent of the federal budget on foreign aid. Once they know reality, many more of those surveyed say we should spend more, fewer think we spend too much and the number who simply became confused or refused to talk anymore (ha!) increased by more than 50 percent:

Kaiser Survey Graph

The Kaiser surveyors identified one culprit to blame for this stunning level of ignorance, the media:

“An ongoing challenge for those looking to increase the public’s level of interest in and support of global health is grabbing their attention, and there are some signs that the visibility of global health issues has declined in recent years.

“News media continues to be the public’s top source of information on global health, and there is great variation in how much people report hearing in the news about specific health issues in developing countries, with hunger and malnutrition at the top of the list. Few say they’ve heard much about tuberculosis or polio from the news media. Still, public awareness of the global challenge of polio is high; three-quarters are aware that the disease has not been eradicated worldwide.”

End note analysis:

Humanosphere exists, in part, to try to address the mainstream media’s relatively poor coverage of foreign aid, development and global health as one leading points-on-the-spear in the ongoing fight against global poverty. Illness, especially in poor countries, is a leading cause of impoverishment (also the leading cause of bankruptcy in the US, thanks to our patchwork health insurance system). Fighting disease can be a powerful way to reduce poverty.

What is also troubling in this Kaiser report is how few people are aware of the major gains made in the last decade-and-a-half against many diseases of poverty like HIV, TB and malaria – not to mention the prevention of many millions of child deaths from stupid, boring diseases like measles, diarrhea and pneumonia largely through anti-hunger efforts, more access to maternal and child care and, of course, expanded vaccination.

Is the public’s ignorance and apathy about foreign aid the fault of the media? Arguably, partly, yes. But the media – these days especially – tends to just repeat the narrative handed it by advocates of any particular cause. And many of the larger players in the humanitarian field are doing their own narratives, institutional journalism if you will. Many of these institutional narratives seem well-reported and compelling. So how is it that this much-celebrated expansion and democratization of the media – this explosion of organizational story-telling, ‘citizen journalism’ and transformative nature of social media – is still failing to engage and inform the public?

Maybe it’s because the aid narrative generally sucks. That’s what we at Humanosphere think, as explained in our mission statement. We believe the aid narrative is a bit preachy, safe and straining to be ‘positive’ to the point of pathology.

We think many in the humanitarian community often patronize the public and refuse to include them in on the real story – which can be messy, highly political and uncomfortable since poverty is not really an accident of nature. Poor kids don’t die from a simple intestinal bug – just because they didn’t get a vaccine. They die because they live in a poor community that has an unsafe disease-ridden water system and no staffed health clinics. They’re poor because of how little they are paid for sewing our clothes together or for the minerals they dig out of the ground so we can make our electronic devices. They die because their government, too focused on the foreign investors, has no incentive to help them.

The Kaiser survey indicates the global health sales pitch is losing steam. Maybe this is evidence that what’s needed is to more firmly place global health within the broader context of the fight against poverty, inequity and injustice. We’ve made great strides in the last decade or so by investing in targeted interventions and by compartmentalizing the fight against disease. Maybe the public is telling us it’s time for a new approach.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.