Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The uncanny accuracy of European public opinion on the amount of foreign aid that governments give

Ok, this is probably the last post on this topic for a while. But a student (thanks Andrew!) put some of the data on European perceptions of how much foreign aid their governments give (from Eurobarometer 50.1, 1999) into nice electronic form, and I was able to calculate exactly the modal response. And really, the results surprised me: European public opinion turns out to be uncannily accurate at determining the answer to that question, far more than Americans, to the extent to which I wonder if the results discussed in this post are not simply driven by the way the question is asked in the US. The accuracy of European public opinion on this topic actually seems like a striking confirmation of the models of "information aggregation" I invoked earlier: when signals are unbiased, public opinion should converge on the true answer.

The question Eurobarometer 50.1 asked is: "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 countries in Africa South America Asia, etc to develop? (IF YES) Roughly how much of its budget do you think the (NATIONALITY) government spends on this aid?"

The potential answers are:

1 No
2 Yes, less than 1%
3 Yes, between 1 and 4%
4 Yes, between 5 and 9%
5 Yes, between 10 and 14%
6 Yes, between 15 and 19%
7 Yes, between 20 and 24%
8 Yes, between 25% and 29%
9 Yes, 30% or more
10 Yes, but I do not know the percentage (SPONTANEOUS)
NSP No response/Don't know

The correct response is coded 3, between 1 and 4%.

So how did Europeans do in 1996-1998?

Their answers are collected in this table. As you can see, on average about 40-45% of Europeans say they don't know how much aid their governments give (though only about 20% don't know if their governments give any aid, or refuse to answer; another 20% say they think their governments give ODA (official development assistance), but don't know how much), and only about 16% give the correct response. So most Europeans seem to lack knowledge of how much ODA their governments give. (Though note the variance: the vast majority of Danes claim to know that their government gives aid, and something like 40% of them give the correct response).

But this is the wrong metric to focus on. In order to determine how accurate the aggregate public opinion is, we have to do something like what Francis Galton did when he asked people at a country fair to estimate the weight of an ox, and calculate the median response among those who claim to know the answer (roughly, this is the answer that would emerge from a "democratic" vote). And here the results are quite different. In this table, I've included only the answers of people who claim to know the actual percentage of the budget given by European governments as ODA (the number represents the percentage of people giving an answer who claim they know how much money their governments give as ODA), as well as their average and median responses. And Europeans get it exactly right: the median answer in both 1996 and 1998 was precisely 3 (the correct answer). The median in most countries was also very close to the truth: Germans and Belgians overestimate the amount of aid they give (their median answer is 4, meaning between 5% and 9% of the budget, perhaps because Germans suffer from a status effect and Belgians have Brussels?), whereas Greece, Spain, Finland, and Sweden (and Italy in 1998) slightly underestimate the amount of aid they give.

So, collective opinion in the EU, in 1996-1998, "knew" the right answer to the question that seems to stump Americans. I wonder if the problem of bias in American estimates of ODA today is caused by the way the question is asked in PIPA's survey? Would Americans display such a large bias if the question of Eurobarometer 50.1 was asked of them?

[update: fixed some typos and other minor problems for the sake of clarity, 12/15/2010]


  1. Anonymous9:26 AM

    I think a large part of the reason is that there is quite a lot of public debate about foreign aid in European countries, especially the 0.7% norm.

  2. And in Denmark we have had a lot of debate, because we gave more than the rest of the Europeans. We claimed to be world champions, and felt good about it :)

    But after 9 years with a right wing government... not so much...

  3. I wonder, though, why would the amount of debate in European countries about aid not tend to make people overestimate the amount of aid given?

    I suppose people in the US overestimate foreign aid in part for status reasons (it's part of their view of what it means to be the leader of the free world, for examples). But the same could be true of say, Denmark: if being the leader among Western countries on giving foreign aid is part of Danish identity, and is something that is much discussed, one would expect Danes to overestimate the amount of aid they give (unless the actual amount is a big subject of discussion, perhaps).

  4. This doesn’t surprise me at all. What I do wonder about is how much both American and Europeans understand how much AID is being given privately. According to the Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances in 2008 US ODA was $26.8 billion while US Private Philanthropy was $37.3 billion.