Budget data be damned! Mainstream media parrot Bush's false claim that U.S. aid to Africa has “tripled” since 2000

Commenting on President Bush's trip to Gleneagles, Scotland, for the G8 summit, whose planned focus was on efforts to combat global poverty, a July 6 Wall Street Journal editorial (subscription required) echoed Bush's false but frequently repeated claim that he has “tripled” U.S. aid to Africa. Unlike many of the Journal's falsehoods, however, the mainstream media have repeated this one in numerous hard news articles.

In fact, Bush has increased African aid by only 67 percent in nominal dollars, far from the 200 percent increase* that would constitute “tripling,” according to Susan E. Rice, former assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Several “fact sheets” from the State Department (May 31, June 7, June 15, June 20), which administers most U.S. aid programs, repeat the “tripling” claim and add that the United States spent $3.2 billion on official development assistance (ODA) to Africa in 2004, compared to $1.1 billion in 2000. News outlets have repeated these dollar figures to flesh out the claim that U.S. aid has tripled.

But Rice compared U.S. spending on African aid in fiscal year 2000 with FY 2004 for each African aid program in the U.S. budget. She found that ODA programs -- including Bush's global AIDS initiative; the Millennium Challenge Account; debt relief; and several other initiatives -- totaled only about $1.5 billion in 2004, up 43 percent from about $1 billion in 2000. Total aid -- including ODA as well as peacekeeping; foreign military financing and training; disaster assistance for Liberia; post-conflict assistance for Sudan; and other non-ODA initiatives -- totaled about $3.4 billion, up 67 percent from about $2 billion in 2000.

Brookings released Rice's analysis on June 29. Since then, several newspapers noted that Rice or unnamed “advocates” or “aid experts” dispute Bush's claim to have tripled aid. But rather than examining the budget numbers to determine which side is correct, these papers presented the factual dispute over numbers as an irresolvable he-said/she-said situation.

Of course, the total amount of U.S. aid to Africa for both 2000 and 2004 does depend on exactly which budget items one chooses to count as “aid to Africa.” Rice's analysis seems to follow the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's definition of ODA, which the State Department also claims to employ. Still, it's possible that the administration is using a more expansive, yet still plausible, definition of ODA. But a Media Matters for America search found no record of the administration ever providing details about which programs it includes in its $3.2 billion “tripling” calculation -- perhaps because reporters were willing to parrot the claim without demanding an explanation. Now that Rice has produced easily readable tables that document spending on all aid programs, the competing claims hardly deserve to be treated as though they are equally credible.

Many of the articles that repeated Bush's “tripling” claim also noted that in 2003, Bush “pledged” or “committed” to spend $15 billion over five years to combat HIV/AIDS in poor countries. Most failed to note, however, that in the first two years of the initiative (FY 2004 and 2005), Bush and the Republican-led Congress have enacted only $5.2 billion into law. Even if Congress grants Bush's $3.2 billion request for FY 2006, he would have to secure $3.3 billion in both 2007 and 2008 to make good on his commitment.

Following is a chronicle of the various articles that have repeated Bush's false claim. Most were reports on Bush's response to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's call for rich nations to double ODA to Africa to $50 billion by 2010. Coverage intensified around the time of Blair's June 7 visit to Washington.

In the mainstream media, some news outlets repeated Bush's false claim as fact:

  • USA Today: “Blair also wants more money from Bush and other leaders for aid to Africa. Bush has tripled U.S. aid and plans to double it again by 2010. But Bush said last week that handouts to African nations aren't the answer.” [7/4/05]
  • Associated Press: “Bush said he is proud of his administration's tripling of U.S. aid to Africa. But his pledge still falls short of the commitment sought by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the summit host.” [7/5/05]
  • Chicago Tribune: “The White House has balked at Blair's challenge, noting that the U.S. commitment to Africa already has tripled on Bush's watch. The U.S. recently added $674 million, largely to feed millions of people in Ethiopia and Eritrea, to nearly $1.4 billion in aid committed so far this year.” [6/21/05]
  • Knight Ridder: “Bush has won over some skeptics by pledging $15 billion to battle HIV and AIDS in Africa, tripling development aid to the sub-Saharan region to $3.2 billion, creating the Millennium Challenge initiative to provide money to countries anywhere in the world that practice good governance and sound economic policies, and by brokering a peace agreement between Sudan's government and southern rebels that ended a 21-year civil war.” [6/12/05]
  • The Washington Post: “The Bush administration has tripled aid to Africa to $3.2 billion in 2004 and promised several billion more annually through the 'Millennium Challenge' account, though that money has yet to be delivered. The president has also pledged almost $3 billion in annual AIDS relief, most of which will go to Africa.” [6/8/05]

Numerous other mainstream outlets simply quoted or paraphrased Bush's “tripling” claim without noting that it is false:

  • AP: “Bush says his administration has already tripled relief to Africa since it took office, but facing pressure from Blair to do more, he pledged to double U.S. support to Africa by 2010 as America's contribution to the goal of doubling assistance to $50 billion annually.” [7/6/05]
  • AP: “He [Bush] says a doubling of U.S. aid to Africa is not necessary because such assistance has already tripled during his presidency and set to continue to rise.” [6/30/05].
  • The New York Times: “Administration officials say they have already tripled aid to Africa since President Bush took office and contend that a more gradual buildup of assistance will give African countries time to develop the capacity to spend the money well.” [6/10/05]
  • The New York Times: “Mr. Bush also has resisted calls by Mr. Blair for a doubling of direct governmental aid to Africa, saying the United States has already tripled aid to African countries in recent years and will provide more as those nations show they can use it effectively.” [ 6/10/05].
  • AP: “Bush said the United States has tripled its aid to the continent, and the traditional measure of a country's aid effort -- percentage of gross national product, which shows the United States among the most miserly of the rich nations -- was not the right way to measure America's commitment.” [6/8/05]
  • USA Today: “Saying that his administration has already tripled U.S. aid to Africa over the past four years, including $15 billion to fight HIV-AIDS, Bush pledged an additional $674 million in emergency aid, most of which will go to fight famine in Ethiopia, Eritrea and other Horn of Africa nations.” [6/8/05]
  • Chicago Tribune [syndicated by Knight Ridder-Tribune]: “U.S. aid to Africa has tripled during his tenure, noted Bush, who also has pledged ...” [6/8/05]
  • Los Angeles Times: “Bush said his administration had tripled aid to sub-Saharan Africa, to about $3.2 billion, accounting for nearly a quarter of all aid to that region. 'I want you to focus on what we have done, for starters. What I like to say is, my administration actually does what we say we're going to do -- and we have,' he said. 'When I say we're going to make a commitment to triple aid in Africa, I meant it, and we did.'” [6/8/05]
  • The New York Times: “Mr. Bush defended his decision not to join with Mr. Blair by repeatedly saying that the United States has already tripled aid to Africa to $3.2 billion during his administration.” [6/8/05]
  • Dallas Morning News: “Mr. Bush announced that he is increasing aid to Africa by $674 million, far short of what Mr. Blair sought. He argued that his administration has already tripled aid to Africa, up to nearly $1.4 billion.” [6/7/05]
  • AP: “Blair wants summit attendees to promise to double their current Africa aid levels, as part of a push to go beyond emergency relief in favor of more comprehensive, long-term help for the continent's problems. The White House has been cool to that idea, arguing the United States has already tripled its Africa aid during Bush's four years in office, to $3.2 billion in 2004.” [6/7/05]
  • The New York Times: “Administration officials have also signaled that the White House is not inclined to commit itself to Mr. Blair's call for doubling aid to Africa. The officials said that in the last four years, the United States had roughly tripled, to $3.2 billion, the amount of money it provided to Africa.” [6/7/05]
  • New York Daily News [syndicated by Knight Ridder-Tribune]: “Last year, the U.S. tripled aid to Africa to $3.2 billion and committed to spend $15 billion over the next five years to fight HIV/AIDS.” [6/25/05] *This article fails even to reproduce the falsehood accurately. Bush claims to have gradually tripled aid from its 2000 level in four successive budgets from 2001 to 2004. And Bush “committed to spend $15 billion” on HIV/AIDS in January 2003, not last year.

Still others presented competing numerical claims as a he-said/she-said dispute without telling readers which side the facts support:

  • The Washington Post: “Advocates say the United States has not fully funded its new Millennium Challenge aid program or AIDS prevention in Africa, and they took issue with Bush's claim to have already tripled aid to Africa during his presidency and his promise to double it again by 2010. National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the Bush administration now spends $4.3 billion a year on Africa and would increase that to $8.6 billion in five years.” [7/1/05]
  • Los Angeles Times: “Bush said U.S. aid to Africa had tripled since he took office and would double again by 2010. ... Some aid experts disputed the Bush administration's claims of past funding increases. Susan Rice, an assistant secretary of State for African affairs in the Clinton administration, said her calculations showed that U.S. aid to the continent had not quite doubled under Bush.” [7/1/05]
  • The Washington Post: “Administration officials have said that as president, Bush has tripled aid to Africa. The increased U.S. aid has helped finance treatment for more than 200,000 Africans with HIV, which is part of the administration's five-year goal of providing treatment to 2 million people. Susan E. Rice, a Brookings Institution scholar and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Clinton administration, took issue with assertions that Bush has increased aid to Africa three-fold, arguing that the increase actually has been 67 percent.” [6/14/05]

Not surprisingly, conservative media jumped on the bandwagon:

  • Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes: “At the press conference Bush declared, 'We've tripled aid to Africa,' repeating what he'd said in his opening statement. ... Indeed, American aid has nearly tripled. The United States provided more than $3.2 billion in official development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa in 2004. And Bush added another $674 in emergency aid in June.” [6/27/05]
  • Wall Street Journal: “Last year U.S. bilateral aid to Africa was $3.2 billion compared with $1.1 billion in the final year of the Clinton administration ... Last month Mr. Bush committed another $674 million in humanitarian aid to the region.” [7/6/05 (subscription required)]

The Los Angeles Times editorial page even repeated the false statistic in the midst of criticizing Bush:

  • Los Angeles Times: “U.S. foreign aid in general has been pathetically small for decades. When Bush took office, it amounted to just a tenth of a percent of national income. So when Bush touts his record -- a tripling of aid to Africa, a $15-billion commitment to fight HIV/AIDS, etc. -- it has to be put in perspective: It's better than nothing, but it's still kind of measly.” [6/13/05]
  • Los Angeles Times: “As Bush demonstrated Tuesday, the United States is the biggest obstacle to Britain's Africa initiative. The other G-8 members, with the exception of Japan, have signaled support for greater commitments to Africa, while the U.S. has flatly rejected key points of Blair's plan. Bush and Blair said Tuesday that they are close to an agreement on debt relief, and Bush rightly pointed out that he has tripled U.S. aid to sub-Saharan Africa; during his tenure the nation's foreign aid contributions have risen from 0.1% of national income to 0.16%. But that's still far short of U.S. promises -- in 2000, it and other G-8 nations vowed to raise foreign aid to 0.7% of national income.” [6/8/05]

The original version of this item wrongly stated that a “300 percent increase ... would constitute tripling.” In fact, only a 200 percent increase is necessary. A 300 percent increase would be a quadrupling. Thanks to J.C. for the tip.