Word Matters

Posted on 18 August 2008

While working through a backlog of reading I came across this post by Lucy Bernholz* on Philanthropy 2173, in which she characterizes “foreign aid” as “international philanthropy” while referencing Reinventing Foreign Aid, a new volume edited by William Easterly.

Private philanthropy is part of “foreign aid,” and as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, arguably its fastest growing segment.  Yet for folks in the NGO field, the term generally connotes funding made available to developing countries by Western governments and multi-lateral institutions like the World Bank and UN (and, from a cursory skim, this is the general sense in which the book uses it).  They have traditionally set the intellectual framework for how and where aid is deployed.

That one of our leading commentators on philanthropy uses the two terms interchangeably might be another example of the growing influence of private dollars within aid.  Yet most of us would not equate government funds and philanthropy and would be careful to draw a distinction between the two when examining domestic nonprofit and public services.  However innocent Lucy’s characterization (the point of her post was something else entirely), it surfaced for me the challenges of perception faced by the international NGO community.

No matter how strong the humanitarian values of the U.S. general public, they misunderstand or are uncertain about our government’s role and aspirations in providing development assistance.  According to data collected by Public Agenda, half of the country believes that we spend more on international aid than Social Security and Medicare.

They also remain pretty skeptical about its value.  As Joe Lockhart (the former White House press secretary) said at InterAction’s 2008 National Forum, “foreign assistance” are two words sure to create strong negative reactions in the American public.  Most view U.S. foreign aid as “charity” — i.e., something based on a moral impulse rather than a strategic imperative — and worry that the money is being wasted.

Major U.S. NGOs are part of a push to modernize and reform U.S. foreign assistance, an issue that they hope will get serious attention from the next presidential administration.  Convincing the public that this should be a priority will be a challenge.  And helping them understand that focusing on the reduction of global poverty as an important goal in and of itself, rather than making it subordinate to our national security or foreign policy strategies – helping them realize that this focus may ultimately have the most benefit for our security will require significant education.

“Foreign aid” may not be the same as “international philanthropy,” but it should aim to be “philanthropic” – strategically invested, with a focus on maximizing its impact on poverty.  Doing so successfully will increase human security worldwide – and increase our national security at home.

Full disclosure: I have taught seminars with Lucy Bernholz and consider her a personal friend, as well as one of the field’s leading thinkers about the future of private philanthropy.

3 responses to Word Matters

  • Leigh Anne says:

    The NGOs pushing for U.S. foreign aid reform – that link didn’t go through. Would you please send it to me?

  • Tony Pipa says:

    Leigh Anne, sorry the link didn’t work. Here are the links to two policy statements by InterAction on reforming US foreign aid:

    Also, you might want to check out their recent reports on the rationale for creating a new Department of Global and Human Development:

    I’ll be doing a post on all the activity around reforming US foreign assistance in the near future.

  • Alanna says:

    I am going to be referring a lot of people to this blog post. Private charity and US foreign assistance should not be conflated.

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