How Public Support for Foreign Aid Depends on Trust

Literature on development aid ranges from analyzing the effectiveness of aid to assessing foreign policy attitudes. However, as many members of society scrutinize government spending and demand transparency, it becomes increasingly necessary to justify a foreign aid budget to a skeptical public. In a detailed study using data from the 2005 World Values Survey (WVS) and the 2011 Core Values Project Survey (CVP), A. Burcu Bayram finds that generalized trust towards others plays a crucial role in laying the foundation for a donor country’s public support for development aid. Her research seeks to assist governments—which often utilize aid as a foreign policy tool—in understanding the moral basis of their public’s support for foreign aid.

Foreign aid can be defined as financial assistance given from one country to another with the purported goal of aiding economic and social development. Within the donor country, public opposition for foreign aid may prompt the donor government to limit the amount of its national budget that is devoted to foreign assistance. This makes efficient aid delivery and implementation difficult. Bayram hypothesizes that beyond material factors, ideology, and identity, there lies an additional explanation for a donor country’s level of public support for foreign aid. Specifically, she points to generalized trust—which is the belief in the benevolence of people—as an important factor in determining support. Generalized trust relies on a sense of “moral responsibility” for the welfare of others and on viewing everyone as part of the “moral community.” This perception helps to facilitate an individual’s support for global redistribution of wealth because it expands the bonds of community to include strangers. People who have a higher sense of generalized trust tend to empathize more with people from different backgrounds.

To test her hypothesis, Bayram analyzes responses from two independent surveys. Using the WVS and the CVP, she studies support for development aid and global redistributive generosity. Controlling for political, economic, ideology, and identity factors, Bayram finds that generalized trust has a significant impact on support for development aid. Additionally, she finds no statistically significant difference between women and men in terms of willingness to support foreign aid, but there is significant difference between the young and the elderly. Furthermore, unemployed individuals were more supportive than those who were employed. Perhaps this was a result of increased empathy and a sense of shared understanding. Overall, Bayram finds that respondents who scored higher on generalized trust were more willing to display redistributive generosity than those with lower scores. Cosmopolitanism—the belief that all human beings belong to a single community—is also found to be strongly and positively related to support for foreign aid.

It is possible that an individual’s identity as a cosmopolitan might affect their support for foreign aid. However, Bayram argues that cosmopolitanism is compatible with values other than universal morality—such as multiculturalism—necessitating a greater understanding of the specific factors that contribute to one’s willingness to extend generosity to the global community. Upon conducting a series of causal mediation analyses, Bayram finds that only a fraction of a percent of the total effect of trust is derived from one’s identity as a cosmopolitan.

Bayram concludes that public support for foreign aid within a donor country is not simply influenced by one’s socioeconomic, ideological, and political identity; it is, in fact, more nuanced. She notes that “support for foreign aid is a normative decision to help strangers. Generalized trust facilitates this decision.” This study refines existing models of foreign aid attitudes to take into account moral values. It also expands the boundaries of global social justice beyond the impacts of cosmopolitanism. This research helps to explain the discrepancy between countries whose level of development aid matches their level of public support (i.e. Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, and Norway), and countries whose development aid does not match public support (i.e. United States, Japan, Italy, Spain, etc.). Finally, understanding the fact that generalized trust lays the foundation for public support of foreign aid is crucial for continued research on how to help governments gain increased public support for aid.

Article source: A. Burcu Bayram; “Aiding Strangers: Generalized Trust and the Moral Basis of Public Support for Foreign Development Aid,” Foreign Policy Analysis, Volume 13, Issue 1. (2017): 133–153.

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Elaine Li

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