Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg May 26, 2016

US vs. the Nordic block: How they compare on foreign aid giving

President Barack Obama recently hosted a meeting with the leaders of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. The president had nothing but good things to say about his visitors from the Nordic block, remarking that, "There have been times where I’ve said, ‘Why don’t we just put all these small countries in charge for a while, and they could clean things up.’ "

Small but potent was a recurring theme.

"They are, individually, not large countries in terms of population, but in terms of effectiveness, contributions, ideas, energy, they are enormously important players on the international stage," Obama said as they wrapped up their meeting on May 13, 2016. "The Nordic countries are some of the few countries -- and, by the way, the United States doesn’t fall into this category -- of meeting the goals that had been set with respect to foreign aid and humanitarian assistance."

Obama was specifically thinking about a United Nations benchmark that says that 0.7 percent of a country’s Gross National Income should go to official development assistance. It’s an aspirational target that dates back to 1970 and is entirely voluntary. (Gross National Income is a slightly less common way to measure the size of country’s economy.)

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development keeps track of that spending. The money has to go to developing countries and military aid doesn’t count. Since about 1980, four countries have met or shot well beyond the 0.7 percent mark.

They are Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands.

You will notice that Finland and Iceland are missing from that group. Finland has come close, approaching 0.6 percent since 2010, and once -- in 1991 -- hitting 0.8 percent. But that’s not 0.7 percent. Iceland’s high-water mark was .47 in 2008, but its banks bet heavily on risky housing securities and the nation’s economy crashed hard in the Great Recession. Today, it puts .24 percent toward foreign development aid.

Featured Fact-check

Here’s how the 29 member countries of the OECD Development Assistance Committee stack up. (The United States is listed in orange; Nordic countries are in blue.)


The United States is in the middle of the pack with 0.17 percent of GNI. That is just one way of measuring aid, however. The American economy is huge, so in terms of raw dollars, its spending stands way above all others. In 2015, the total was nearly $31 billion, or about a fifth of all the development aid tracked by the OECD.

Of note: Great Britain and Luxembourg have been doing a good job of hitting the 0.7 percent target. In a purely technical sense and for just a couple of years, so has the United Arab Emirates. In 2014 and 2015, it gave more than 1 percent of its GNI in aid. But virtually all of that went to Egypt to support the military after it toppled the government led by parties aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Our ruling

Obama said that the Nordic countries are among the few that have met foreign development aid goals. He was referring to the voluntary target of 0.7 percent of Gross National Income that wealthier nations agreed to in 1970. For the largest Nordic nations of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, Obama is correct. All of them have met or exceeded the 0.7 percent mark for many years.

But if you put Finland and Iceland into the mix, the statement’s accuracy slips. Finland is close but not quite at the mark, and Iceland lies further from it.

We’ll say the statement is three-fifths correct. That rates Mostly True.

Our Sources

White House, Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Lofven of Sweden after Multilateral Meeting with Nordic Leaders, May 13, 2016

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Official development assistance, accessed May 25, 2016

United Nations Millennium Project, The 0.7% target: An in-depth look, accessed May 25, 2016

Development Initiatives, 0.7% aid target factsheet, Aug. 28, 2013

Email interview, Peter Boogaard, spokesman, National Security Council, White House, May 26, 2016


Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Jon Greenberg

US vs. the Nordic block: How they compare on foreign aid giving

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up