Along the 30th Parallel: What NPR Gets Wrong about Public Opinion and Foreign Aid

NPR’s new headquarters (NPR)

A recent blog post by Greg Myre on NPR’s web site (“Which Nations Hate the U.S.? Often Those Receiving the Most Aid,” July 23) is a typical example of reporting on international public opinion. Myre attempts to correlate a Pew Research Center report on foreign opinion of the United States and a U.S. government site listing our foreign assistance contributions. It’s amisleading piece of work, although not immediately clear on its face, inclined to do more harm than good, more obscuring than illuminating. Myre is an established reporter with Middle East bona fides and should know better.

To give an example of why Myre’s argument is so farcical, I’ll demonstrate how an analogous argument has a higher rate of correlation yet proves exactly nothing – which is only slightly better than I can say for Myre. Myre correlates the “high” U.S. foreign assistance rates for a series of countries, in particular Egypt and Pakistan, with our abysmal public approval ratings in those countries (in the case of the Pew report contrasting to China). So far, so good – we gave Egypt about $1.5 billion mostly in military aid and have a 15 percent approval rating to show for it. Similarly, our public approval ratings in contrast to China don’t show so well for foreign assistance above $1 billion in countries like Pakistan. The only country that has a high approval rating of the United States, and received $3 billion, is Israel.

But my equally arbitrary measure has a higher rate of correlation: every country that receives more than $1 billion in U.S. assistance – and includes Myre’s Jordan and Palestine, which receive around a half-billion dollars – falls along the 30thparallel, including Israel. Clearly, the United States has some sort of vital interest along this region of the world and is willing to spend whatever it takes to secure it. In the politics of international aid, the 30th parallel could be called the One Billion Dollar Parallel.

My correlation is absurd, of course. But so is Myre’s. Because correlating real dollars against public opinion percentages is ridiculous when we are measuring 1) vastly different economies and populations as well as 2) greatly different political contexts. For example, Israel and the United States are close allies. Public opinion of the United States is strong in Israel. In the case of Pakistan and the United States, China is considered by Pakistan as a bulwark against the latter’s primary enemy, India. Myre cited aid to and abysmal approval ratings in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, all of which have very specific histories with our ally Israel which must surely outweigh a few billion dollars – never mind the fact that when the Egyptian army arrested President Muhammad Morsi, American-built M-1 tanks and M-113 APCs rolled through city streets to assert control. Egyptians know very well what $1.5 billion in U.S. aid buys them.

And these numbers look very different in Africa, where the United States is popular. Former President George W. Bush poured billions of dollars into AIDS/HIV relief on the continent, and the public opinion in those countries reflect that. Look at South Africa, Ghana and Uganda in the Pew poll. Both Uganda and South Africa received more than $400 million from the United States, but they don’t quite fit Myre’s thesis.

At the same time, Myre doesn’t even try to examine what China gives to any of these countries – probably because China gives hardly anything. China is exploiting many of the countries in Africa for raw materials, and delivering shoddy infrastructure in return.

It is beyond my mathematics ability, as well as my patience, to put together a complete matrix that would more accurately capture what you could expect to get in public opinion for every American aid dollar. That is clearly the implication of Myre’s article. You would have to zero out each economy and population, as well as aid and public approval rating, and compare those numbers as a common denominator or baseline measure.

Let’s try this admittedly crude measure…

(Real dollar aid / GDP ) x (population x public approval rating %) = baseline

…and compare Egypt and Israel for the sake of illustration. Just inputting the numbers into my equation demonstrates the absurdity of correlating aid spending to public opinion:

Egypt: ($1,559,300,000 / $548,800,000,000) x (85,294,388 x 16 %) = 27,294

Israel: ($3,100,000,000 / $252,800,000,000) x (7,707,042 x 83 %) = 76,762

(Population and GDP figures are taken from the CIA World Factbook. Aid figures and public opinion drawn from the sites listed above.)

In other words, using these baselines, for slightly less than double the real dollar investment in aid to Egypt, we get nearly triple the “return” per dollar in aid to Israel. But putting this into such a stark numeric contrast further heightens the outlandishness of trying to make these kinds of comparisons and correlations. We don’t really expect a “return” on aid. Assistance for disease eradication doesn’t get a “return” – it cures people. Economic aid to an emerging former communist country is entirely different from aid given to a country recovering from a natural disaster, or aid to a war-ravaged Central Asian nation. And so on.

Moreover, even with a baseline, it is ridiculous to compare these countries. Egypt is not Israel. Nigeria is not Pakistan. South Africa is not Afghanistan. We give more or less aid to some countries because the challenges or politics they present are unique or particular to them. Aid is political – what we think we should be doing – and doesn’t necessarily follow the laws of economy or business. That’s why it’s aid.

In short, we give aid to achieve specific political objectives in a specific political context. And more often than people might think, we give aid simply to do the right thing. If a billion and a half dollars buys us influence with the Egyptian army, and with that we can constrain their action and keep the country from becoming Syria, who is to say that isn’t worth the cost?


Misreading International Public Opinion…Again

(Korean Beacon)

Public opinion is like screen resolution: the more data points you have, the more accurate your picture is likely to be. This came to mind reading Washington Post foreign affairs blogger Max Fisher’s latest post about South Korean public opinion on the eve of a visit by South Korean President Park Geun-hye to Washington. Fisher notes that South Korean approval of President Barack Obama, as measured by the Pew Research Center’s recent poll, has never been higher – at 77 percent, enviously nearly double his current 45 percent approval rating domestically.

While the President’s approval ratings are a decent barometer – a thumb’s-up endorsement of an individual at a particular point in time – they shouldn’t be substituted for a comprehensive understanding of public opinion. Our relationship with other countries is simply too complex and dynamic for the political equivalent of a movie review blurb. Fisher alludes to this at the top of his blog, but then sidesteps the obvious points – such as the dramatic change in South Korea’s approval of the American president came with a dramatic change in presidents in 2008. That occurred almost everywhere in the world at the same time. Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s a fact of public opinion and political science: the world swooned for Barack Obama. Huge number spikes – dozens of points in many cases between Bush and Obama – were not strictly or even partially explained by a prospective overnight change in U.S. foreign policy.

Reading The Obamas by Jodi Kantor recently one got the sense of an almost alternative reality for the First Family during the President’s first term – berated and despised at home, adored and celebrated abroad. The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends put his approval rating among Germans at messianic levels – 92 percent in 2009, merely supermenschen at 79 percent in 2012. His approval numbers remain above 65 percent on average for the European Union and Western Europe even today.

That said, when people around the world think about the United States, they think about a lot more than just the President. The Pew polls, whose depth Fisher unfortunately ignores in his post (possibly because Pew is doling out their 2013 data set incrementally), take this complexity into account. People think about Americans, American culture, the American way of doing business, American science and technology, American ideas and customs, American democracy, and other considerations about America and Americans. Pew has polled on these questions across more than three dozen countries for more than a decade.

So South Koreans like our President, and they like us, and our technological prowess. They like our way of doing business, too, and our democracy (and at rates that would make our Congress envious). But importantly, they are considerably less enthusiastic about our culture, ideas and customs. It’s an interesting contradiction: how can you like Americans without liking who we are and what we do as a people? But that’s the way it is.

Such contradictions are rife in polls like these, but they are what make them interesting and worth learning more through other sources (Gallup, for example, and the Transatlantic Trends). They should also give us pause about making categorical judgments about how people around the world view us, because that view is decidedly mixed, fluid and contradictory. Depending on differing values and histories, people can enjoy or disdain our culture, like or dislike us, admire or reject our democracy. Every region and country is different, and people within those regions and countries are different and contradict one another.

Those are the data points that help make the whole picture. It’s a complicated, changing picture to be sure and it’s what makes international politics so volatile — but also enjoyable and hopeful.