Americans are hearing so much these days about how bad we are that we're starting to believe it.
In a recent Gallup poll, 68 percent said they are "dissatisfied with the position of the United States in the world today," and 55 percent said they think that the rest of the world views us unfavorably.
However, as I page through a publication called the Index of Global Philanthropy, which is produced annually by the Center for Global Prosperity at the Hudson Institute in Washington, it becomes obvious that these American feelings of self-deprecation are misguided.
This is the just released third annual edition of this index. It produces a unique snapshot portraying the full extent of American generosity to developing countries, by amount and by source.
Usually when the question of aid to the developing world arises, we think of government funds. But this index shows that, whereas it may be the rule in the rest of the industrialized world that most aid is government aid, in our country this isn't the case. Most of the contributions that Americans make abroad are private and voluntary. And they are large.
In 2006, the latest year for which data is available, the index reports that Americans contributed privately and voluntarily $34.8 billion to individuals and organizations in developing countries.
Philanthropy is distinct from government aid in that it originates with private citizens and is voluntary, but also the recipients are private individuals and organizations, as opposed to governments. Private to private versus government to government.
The $34.8 billion in philanthropy from private Americans exceeded the $23.5 billion in official U.S. government aid abroad by $11.3 billion, or 48 percent.
This private philanthropy is flowing from foundations, corporations, private and voluntary organizations, universities and colleges, and religious organizations.
Of particular interest in this year's index is the $8.8 billion reported from religious organizations. According to Carol Adelman, who directs this work, the data was produced by commissioning "the first national survey of congregational giving to the developing world" ever done.
The average contribution of congregations was $10,700.
To put this in some kind of perspective, the $8.8 billion in giving from American religious institutions to developing countries was $1.5 billion more than the total giving from all private sources in 30 of the world's major industrialized democratic countries combined.
When consolidating all assistance funds flowing from the United States to developing countries, the total is $129.8 billion. This is the total of government aid, philanthropy, and remittances -- funds sent directly by private individuals to other private parties in developing countries, often family members. A far second in total giving behind the United States is the United Kingdom at $20.7 billion.
There are a couple of important messages here.
First, of course, is the incredible compassion and generosity of Americans. American largesse does not need to be pried or forced by the government. It flows organically from free, civic minded and often religiously motivated citizens. And it comes from citizens of every income strata. The religious giving data shows that whereas the average congregation gives $10,700, the median number is $2,500, indicating that there are many smaller, less wealthy congregations engaged.
The other headline is the central importance of the private sector in both generating prosperity, but also in sharing it.
Bookshelves now strain with studies showing the failures of government-to-government aid.
It is individuals who create wealth. Compassion and personal responsibility reside in the breasts of those same individuals. Neither can be said of government bureaucracies.
Barack Obama spoke at the commencement ceremony at Wesleyan University the other day. He talked about national service and, recalling John F. Kennedy, committed to doubling the size of the Peace Corps if elected president.
From what I see and what the data shows, Americans don't need government to make them care, contribute, and volunteer. If anything, they need less government so they'll retain and keep control of more of what they produce and subsequently share with those in need.
Other countries may have their own motivations for what causes them to view Americans the way they do. But the data is clear. Americans are unmatched in creating prosperity and sharing it.
It's time to pay closer attention to what Americans do rather than what others say.
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