For more than two centuries, Americans have sought to be helpful to fellow human beings beyond their own borders. They have carried literacy, knowledge, and technology to remote places, battled medical suffering, and alleviated poverty and misery of all sorts. From the first Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century, to the bold overseas projects of Rockefeller and Carnegie, to the 6 million lives saved in the developing world by the Gates Foundation in just its first 15 years of existence, to the many relief organizations powered by small gifts from millions of citizens, Americans have built a record as the most charitable of neighbors.
It’s a powerful but little understood fact that our private giving actually dwarfs the official humanitarian aid sent overseas by the U.S. government. The latest calculations from the indispensable Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances show that $39 billion of private philanthropy was invested in developing countries in 2011, while individual Americans (mostly immigrants) sent an additional $100 billion abroad to support relatives and friends in foreign lands. Meanwhile, official development assistance from the U.S. government that year totaled $31 billion.
And it isn’t just the quantity of aid that matters, but also the quality. From creating new lifesaving vaccines to constructing major universities, from promoting property rights to battling terrorism and nuclear proliferation in fresh ways, American philanthropists are pursuing many inventive initiatives overseas. Not only the content but also the forms of giving are being rapidly refined—with for-profit mechanisms, e-giving, entrepreneurial methods, and other new means reshaping the efficiency and effectiveness of philanthropy in lands where bureaucracy and corruption are constant risks.
The cases that follow are representative examples of what has been achieved around the globe by more than two centuries of American donating. Many additional examples of overseas philanthropy in specific areas like medicine and religion can be found on our companion Major Achievement lists devoted to those topics.
— Section research provided by Karl Zinsmeister with assistance from Christopher Levenick, Evan Sparks, Adam Sawyer, John Murdock