Public support for international aid has been on the decline in the United States for many years. However, not only does aid have the potential to serve humanitarian and developmental benefits in poorer countries, but it can also further U.S. strategic and security interests. In the context of President Joe Biden’s plan to bring foreign assistance to the center of U.S. foreign policy, a stark contrast from Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, how does the public think foreign aid should be allocated? Are there public preferences for what types of countries should receive aid and are all types of aid viewed similarly? Our original survey work suggests that the public strongly prefers prioritizing aid for democratic countries, although they may be more lenient with the designation of humanitarian aid.
Following the Vietnam War, 70 percent of the public thought the United States spent too much on foreign aid. That number decreased to around 60 percent under George W. Bush’s administration as a result of the rally around the flag effect. Under the Trump administration, though, support for aid funding decreased in favor of funding domestic programs. In a 2017 Chicago Council poll, when presented with various federal programs and asked how spending should change, around 50 percent of respondents said both military aid and economic aid should be cut back, yet domestic programs received an overwhelming majority of support for increased funding. Such findings suggest that the American public may not see the rationale behind aid, especially when domestic needs and the national debt are easier to identify, with public support fluctuating based on high-profile instances of aid.
Another factor that plays into low levels of support for aid is corruption fatigue. Evidence from Europe suggests that perceptions about corruption in developing countries reduce overall support for aid in donor countries. These findings hold true in the United States. For instance, George W. Bush’s development efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and subsequent military interventions, were viewed as costly and reinforced the notion that aid does not work in corrupt countries. Trump’s aid policies reflected this sentiment by prioritizing aid to countries that serve U.S. economic and security interests instead of to poorer “corrupt” countries.
Other data and analyses have shown that the public generally supports humanitarian aid more so than aid that primarily serves strategic interests. Another Chicago Council poll from 2016 found that 61 percent of Americans prioritized giving aid to “countries with the poorest economies” compared to only 9 percent that prioritized giving aid to “countries needed as trading partners” and 29 percent “to countries essential to US security.” This evidence suggests a preference for altruistic giving to certain types of countries, under certain conditions, and that the public may not treat all aid as the same.
Despite the unpopularity of aid at the surface, Americans also seem to support specific aid policies. In the same 2017 Chicago Council poll, support for funding aid dramatically increased when purposes of aid were specified. For example, 80 percent of respondents supported funding for “food and medical assistance” and 65 percent supported funding to “help developed economies.” Likewise, research by Yoshiharu Kobayashi, Tobias Heinrich, and Kristin A. Bryant found that support for providing aid to developing countries to curb impacts of the second wave of Covid-19 increased upon learning domestic health benefits of such policies.
To test whether the public would prioritize aid by type of regime and whether this differed by aid type, we commissioned a national web survey, conducted by Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We admittedly sidestep the issue of general support for international aid, which public opinion data consistently shows a partisan divergence. Instead, our 625 respondents were randomly assigned one of four versions of a question about prioritizing aid by regime type, altering only the type of aid to be provided:
Version 1: In your opinion, the United States should prioritize giving aid to what types of countries?
Version 2: In your opinion, the United States should prioritize giving economic aid to what types of countries?
Version 3: In your opinion, the United States should prioritize giving humanitarian aid to what types of countries?
Version 4: In your opinion, the United States should prioritize giving military aid to what types of countries?
Overall, our findings show that the public prefers that aid go to democracies. When the type of aid is not identified (Version 1), 48 percent prefer aid going to democracies, with the rest nearly evenly split between democratizing and non-democratic countries. However, when the type of aid explicitly is mentioned, prioritizing allocations to democracies increases, particularly for military aid. That democracies are preferred is problematic in that, while the public may have greater affinity for governments like their own, democratizing and non-democratic countries constitute most of the countries that tend to need aid—for governing, development, and emergency response mechanisms—the most. These findings may account for lower levels of support for aid in general, but also highlight a misinformed public on aid needs.
Despite public preferences to prioritize aid to democratic regimes, President Biden plans to use foreign aid to develop poorer economies and promote democracy abroad in democratizing and non-democratic countries, primarily in Central America and the Middle East. However, Biden may not be completely ignoring public opinion, as a majority of Americans believe that the United States has had a positive impact on global democratization efforts. These aid policies would also help to create new export markets and reduce illegal immigration, coinciding with the view that foreign policy is inextricably linked to domestic interests.
Partisan differences over support for aid were also amplified during the Trump administration. While Democrats and Republicans have similar views about the effectiveness of military aid, 79 percent of Democrats think that economic aid is at least somewhat effective compared to only 54 percent of Republicans. These findings reflect different foreign policy priorities held by the parties. Polling during the Trump administration shows that Republicans have increasingly become more skeptical of America’s engagement in international affairs but improving relationships with other countries was the top foreign policy priority for Democrats. Democrats were also more likely to support democracy promotion, improving living standards, and defending human rights abroad. On the other hand, the top foreign policy priorities for Republicans were countering terrorism and protecting American jobs.
Comparing how Democrats and Republicans responded to our survey yields several insights. Again, we see a prioritization for aid to democracies. Not surprisingly, Republicans prefer allocating economic aid to democratic regimes more so than Democrats, reflecting each parties’ views on general public spending. However, it is surprising that Democrats prefer prioritizing military aid to democratizing regimes more than Republicans by almost 10 points and that Republicans show virtually no preference between regime types in the humanitarian aid version.
The partisan differences concerning military and humanitarian aid could be an anomaly, but this may also be that partisan circles are telling a different story of foreign policy priorities. For instance, Republicans may not show a preference in the allocation of humanitarian aid because economic and military aid receives more coverage or because of general concerns about the efficacy of such aid. Similarly, Democrats may prefer military aid to democracies more out of a desire to limit the scope of military aid.
If President Biden plans to revitalize foreign aid without a public backlash, the administration should focus on information campaigns that specify the purposes of types of aid and address the strategic and humanitarian value of giving aid to countries that are not democracies. Furthermore, although Biden has expressed opposition to protectionist policies, such ideas remain popular with large swaths of the American public. To overcome this, the administration must also strengthen the case on how the use of foreign aid connects to domestic priorities, from national security and immigration to economic growth.
Erika Puhakka is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in International Affairs, Political Science, and Economics.
Tani Washington is an honors undergraduate researcher at Western Kentucky University, double majoring in Economics and History with a concentration in African-American studies.
Timothy S. Rich is an associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University and director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.