Some have wondered whether the high estimate of foreign aid spending is due to Americans incorrectly including in their estimates the high costs of defending other countries militarily. To determine if this was the case, in June 1996 PIPA presented the following question: US foreign aid includes things like humanitarian assistance, aid to Israel and Egypt, and economic development aid. It does not include the cost of defending other countries militarily, which is paid for through the defense budget. Just based on what you know, please tell me your hunch about what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Despite this clarification, the median estimate was 20% and the mean 23%.Europeans, however, do appear to produce less biased estimates of foreign aid than Americans:
When Europeans are asked how much the government spends on overseas aid from the national budget, approximately one third of respondents do not know. Another third will choose between 1-5 per cent and 5-10 per cent. The smallest proportion will mention less than one per cent.21 The consistent trend across OECD countries is to overestimate the aid effort.The figures cited appear to be from this report, I think, though the question is not exactly comparable. Most citizens admit they don't know (57% or so). Here's a table (click for larger size):
The correct response is "around 100 Euros per European citizen." (Based on the figures in the table, however, it looks like most Europeans actually underestimate the amount of foreign aid the EU gives - which does not support the conclusion of the other report. I wonder what the results would be if the question were asked in these terms in the USA). Anyway, it seems like the evidence is inconsistent with the hypothesis that high foreign aid estimates are driven by the inclusion of military spending in the results, though the fact that European populations do produce lower estimates of aid spending (even though the questions are not exactly comparable) does suggest that perhaps military spending plays small role.
Another option: perhaps this is driven in part by national status? "High status" (powerful) countries will tend to have a self-image that includes lots of aid to others. But disaggregated figures for all the EU countries do not appear to be easily available to test this sort of thing (e.g., maybe France, Britain, and Germany produce more incorrect estimates than small, peripheral countries like Latvia and the Czech Republic).
[Update 12/8/2010 - thanks again Andrew: A 1999 Eurobarometer report (p. 11) notes that "Approximately a quarter of Europeans thinks that their government actually contributes to development aid, but does not feel well enough informed to say how much The largest proportions of votes go to the categories « Between 1 and 4% » (14%, -2 since 1996) and « Less than 1% » (10%, -2) Europeans are not far from reality when they make this choice." The question asked then was "We are not talking about humanitarian aid, that is assistance provided in emergency situations like wars. famine, etc, but about development aid Do you think the (NATIONALITY) government helps the people in poor countnes in Afnca, South America Asia etc to develop (I F YES) Roughly how much of its budget do you think the (NATIONALITY) government spends on this aid." The correct answer is "between 1 and 4%". If I'm reading the accompanying table right, Denmark, Finland and Sweden give especially accurate answers - around 40% of people in Denmark give the correct answer.]