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Givers without borders

Charity | Churches and individuals lead in giving to poor countries

America's defenders often say that no country in the world is more generous toward developing countries than the United States. And that's true: In 2007, the U.S. government poured $21.8 billion in aid into developing countries.

But that's only half the story. As a matter of fact, that's much less than half the story.

A new survey of U.S. religious giving from congregations of all denominations to the developing world found that religious congregations gave $8.6 billion to the developing world in 2007, or almost a quarter of all private philanthropy. That's according to the newly released "Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances" published annually by Hudson Institute's Center for Global Prosperity (CGP). Nonreligious charities were responsible for another $11 billion. Capital investment by American corporations was over $97 billion, and "remittances"-simply sending cash overseas to family and friends-amounted to $79 billion.

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"Foreign aid by the U.S. government is the minority shareholder when it comes to aid to the poor," said Carol Adelman, Director of the CGP. The study, which is in its second year, is a collaboration with Notre Dame's Center for the Study of Religion and Society. Their results are combined with data from the Billy Graham Center on giving by Protestant mission agencies and data from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to get a complete picture of church giving in America.

This year's Index finds that U.S. religious congregations "continue to be extraordinarily generous to the developing world," Adelman said. Nearly three-quarters of U.S. congregations give directly to relief organizations, with an average donation of $11,960. About 89,000 congregations contributed a total of $3.3 billion directly to programs in foreign countries. Roughly 34 percent of the congregations reported that people from their congregation went abroad on short-term mission trips and about 73 percent of these congregations provided a total of $759 million in support for these trips. Another 30 percent of congregations supported longer-term mission trips for relief and development by providing $1.4 billion in donations.

The study raises some interesting-and vexing-questions. For example, the numbers above suggest that almost a quarter of the $8.6 billion given by churches doesn't actually go to the poor, but to the people America sends on mission trips to the poor. Missiologists such as Robert Priest at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School have questioned the value of short-term missions trips, because they are "based largely on the needs of the missionary" and not the needs of those to whom the missionary is sent.

And there are political questions to consider, as well: When large corporations see their tax rates go up, do they invest less in developing countries? If so, will the government have to contribute more in direct aid to these countries, thereby negating any increase in tax revenue, and killing economic development to boot?

Adelman is noncommittal on the policy implications except to say this: "Government aid has a new role. It no longer does the heavy lifting. Its role is to help private philanthropic models that work. Government aid should be focused on increasing the capacity of private programs that have passed the market test.

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