Down the Rathole? Public Support for U.S. Foreign Aid

Hurst, R., Tidwell, T. & Hawkins, D. International Studies Quarterly

Americans think the US foreign aid budget is far too generous. Can information change those views? We identified ten prominent arguments about aid in public discussion, five positive and five negative. In a survey experiment, we exposed respondents to one of those arguments with five associated facts. Most of the arguments in favor of aid made respondents more supportive, while most of the arguments against aid made them less supportive. Arguments that focused either positively or negatively on economic development in recipient countries or advancing US interests made little difference. In contrast, arguments about the domestic costs of foreign aid or those that invoked moral considerations like recipient need or corruption had fairly large effects on attitudes. The most successful argument, on the low cost of aid, reduced aid opposition from 67 to 28 percent. When respondents saw both pro and con arguments together, however, arguments generally lost their efficacy. The only exception was the argument about the low cost of aid, which altered opinions in some ways—even when countered with anti-aid arguments. Our results are somewhat surprising given the conventional wisdom that people are motivated reasoners who reject new information that does not conform to their worldview.