The Public’s Foreign Aid Priorities: Evidence from a Conjoint Experiment

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 635 –648
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20939925
Foreign aid has the potential to improve conditions in targeted
countries (e.g., Burnside & Dollar, 2000; Dreher et al., 2008;
Mekasha & Tarp, 2013, but see De Mesquita & Smith, 2009),
advance donor countries’ geopolitical interests (Alesina &
Dollar, 2000; Dreher & Sturm, 2012; Nowak-Lehmann,
2009; Wang, 1996), and burnish the donor country’s image
among foreign publics (Dietrich & Winters, 2015; Goldsmith
et al., 2014). In line with this evidence, elites in the United
States—which spends more on foreign aid than any other
country in absolute terms (OECD, 2018)—tend to view foreign
aid as money that is, on balance, well spent.1 Yet foreign aid is
one of a handful of policy domains where a substantial share
of the American public believes the government should be
spending less (Kates et al., 2019). These attitudes are likely to
be consequential given that domestic audiences shape elites’
foreign policy choices (Fearon, 1994; Schultz, 2001; Slantchev,
2006; Tomz, 2007; Trager & Vavreck, 2011)—including those
made regarding foreign aid (Eisensee & Strömberg, 2007;
Heinrich, 2013; Heinrich et al., 2018; Nielsen, 2013; Tingley,
2010). Indeed, the U.S. public’s apparent aversion to foreign
aid spending may, in part, explain why U.S. spending, although
high in absolute terms, is quite low relative to other developed
countries when calculated as a percentage of GDP.
One possibility is that the public is fundamentally opposed
to this type of spending—many Americans may simply
believe that government dollars should be spent domestically.
However, it is also possible that the public does not under-
stand how foreign aid dollars are spent or how much is spent.
Surveys find that the public drastically overestimates the
amount spent on foreign aid. Although foreign aid accounts
for about 1 percent of the United States’ federal budget, in a
2014 poll the average respondent estimated that 26 percent of
the budget is devoted to foreign aid—only 5 percent of
respondents correctly gave a response of 1 percent. That same
survey found that support for spending increased substan-
tially when these misconceptions were corrected (DiJulio
et al., 2015). Similarly, the public may fundamentally misun-
derstand what types of spending elites are referring to when
they use the term “foreign aid” (Williamson, 2019) or may
believe foreign aid dollars are spent on the wrong types of
projects or countries.
Although researchers have examined the individual and
contextual factors that affect broad support for foreign aid
spending, we know far less about the features of aid propos-
als that make foreign aid spending more or less attractive to
citizens. In this article we leverage a unique conjoint exper-
iment included on a national survey that presented respon-
dents with a series of pairs of hypothetical foreign aid
packages and asked them which they preferred. We make
two contributions that offer new insights into the contours
of public attitudes about foreign aid.
939925APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20939925American Politics ResearchDoherty et al.
1Loyola University, Chicago, IL, USA
2Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
David Doherty, Loyola University, 1032 W. Sheridan Road, Coffey Hall,
3rd Floor, Chicago, IL 60660, USA.
The Public’s Foreign Aid Priorities:
Evidence from a Conjoint Experiment
David Doherty1, Amanda Clare Bryan1,
Dina Hanania2, and Matthew Pajor1
Foreign aid is one of the few areas where Americans say the government should spend less. We leverage a unique conjoint
experiment to assess how characteristics of an aid package, as well as characteristics of the targeted country, affect public
support. We find that people are far more inclined to support economic aid than military aid and are disinclined to provide
aid to undemocratic countries. We also find that people are more averse to providing aid—particularly economic aid—
to countries in the “greater Middle East” than those countries’ other characteristics would suggest. These effects are
comparable to those associated with substantial increases in the cost of the aid package, suggesting that public wariness
of foreign aid is not rooted in a fundamental aversion to spending in this domain. Our findings offer new insights into the
contours of public opinion regarding foreign aid.
foreign aid, conjoint experiment, public opinion, foreign policy

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