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Heartless? Ignorant? The truths and myths about public opinion on international aid spending

UK Aid 2
By Mark Wallace
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As we've already heard throughout our series this week, the debate on increasing or decreasing spending on international aid is a roiling pot, a brew of emotions, morality, hard-nosed economics and human empathy, all at the same time and coming from all sides of the debate.

But it is also, inevitably, a political and electoral issue. Aid has been drawn inevitably into the headlines by David Cameron's pledge to ring-fence and increase it despite the wider policy of austerity. 

Doing so draws sharp contrasts. The Prime Minister feels it's the kind of issue which gives a character reference: like ringfencing NHS spending, it shows that spreadsheets and bottom lines haven't completely conquered the human heart. For others, it provides a far more negative reflection on his values: that while British people see public spending cut, the Government continues to send money abroad.

The opinion polling has much to tell us about the people's views on the issue, how politicians might respond and - at minimum - what the electoral cost of sticking to their principles might be.

This debate has been simmering almost since the first day of Coalition. While charities involved in overseas aid were overjoyed at the ringfence pledge, there were voices of caution from the outset, warning that public opinion was not on their side.

The Institute of Development Studies (a different IDS to the one we normally write about) published research in September 2010 that presented a number of fundamental findings:

  • More than 60 per cent of the public agreed with the principle that the UK had some obligation to help the world's poor
  • Just over half agreed explicitly with the idea of sharing some of the UK's wealth with the poor in developing countries
  • 64 per cent said helping the poor at home should take priority over the poor abroad
  • 63 per cent supported cutting aid as part of the effort to address the UK deficit, while only 8 per cent supported an increase in spending
  • 57 per cent opposed ringfencing foreign aid (while, by contrast, more than 80 per cent wanted a ringfence for the NHS)

If the first two findings seem to contradict the third and fourth, that's because they do, in a way. The IDS had identified two fault lines in the aid debate: the distinction between supporting aid and supporting more aid; and the question of whether to prioritise poverty at home over poverty abroad.

Aid versus more aid

Advocates of increased aid spending - including Andrew Mitchell, when he was International Development Secretary - appear to have fallen victim to a fallacy. As the Spectator reported in 2011, they interpreted polling which show people evenly split over the principle of international aid as meaning there was a public support base for increasing it.

That was not the case. The disconnect between public opinion on the principle of aid and the policy of more aid identified by the IDS had if anything strengthened slightly a year into the Coalition's austerity programme. For example, TaxPayers' Alliance polling found in June 2011 that 69 per cent of people wanted a freeze on international development spending, while 43 per cent were willing to scrap the budget entirely.

There are plenty of explanations: that people think we spend enough to satisfy their concern already; that they are sceptical of the effectiveness of international aid; and that they feel that with limited money, British taxpayers' money should be spent at home first.

International aid versus domestic aid

The aid debate has for many become a direct choice - between spending the money abroad or spending it here, at home. Many people may share the principle that we should help the poor around the world if we can, but they do not believe that should come at the expense of the poor in the UK.

For obvious reasons, the financial crisis and the national debate over austerity has sharpened this choice. DFID were reporting polling only months before the election which found up to 40 per cent support for increased aid spending - if the numbers were ever really that high, they have been swept away by increased public awareness of the national debt, the size of the deficit and the economic problems the UK still has to overcome. 

Supporters of aid have failed to adapt to a new political environment. This was a fatal error - "charity begins at home" is a common enough phrase that it should have been obvious it would have a revival when the airwaves are full of discussion of how much we must save from public spending in Britain.

What do you know?

There's a common explanation of the failure to convince the public about aid spending: that they don't understand it. 

It's true that, according to Ipsos MORI research carried out in July 2012, 76 per cent of the British public admit to knowing not very much or nothing at all about the aid we give to other countries (by contrast, 90 per cent of the French confess ignorance while only 44 per cent of Saudis do so) . It's also true that there is a tendency to vastly overestimate both the cash amount and the percentage of public spending which goes on aid.

That said, the evidence does not support the idea that if only people knew more about it then they would be more supportive. YouGov have studied this "info effect" by comparing the results of people who are asked their views and people who are given the figures and then asked their views. 

They found that support for increased aid spending falls slightly when people are given the numbers - part of a trend in which support for just about everything falls when the true scale of public spending is revealed. I suspect this is a symptom of shock at quite how large the Budget has become.

The ignorance explanation might be a reassuring crutch to those dismayed by public opposition to spending more on aid, but it is wishful thinking - and patronising wishful thinking at that.

Why the scepticism?

Anyone wanting to persuade the public that we should spend more on aid (or even protect current spending levels) has a mountain to climb. To start to change opinion, they need to understand the reasons for the current degree of scepticism.

IPPR's 'Understanding public attitudes to aid and development' has some uncomfortable truths for advocates of the policy. The British public are blunt about the causes of poverty around the world - rather than simply blaming natural disasters or the hangover of imperialism, they primarily blame corruption and poor governance.

They are wise to do so - we know that famine is caused and economic growth is stunted by greedy autocrats far more commonly than by the whim of the weather or unfortunate geographical circumstances.

That awareness of the problems caused by elites in recipient countries feeds into concern about aid money being wasted. Ipsos MORI found that 61 per cent agree that "most of the money the UK Government spends on financial aid to poor countries is wasted" (again, that number is no lower among those who know more about the topic).

Undoubtedly there is waste - TPA research shows large percentages of the DfID budget being eaten up on non-frontline costs, even before you broach the question of effectiveness or corruption in-country.

But that isn't the whole story. Intriguingly, the authors of the IPPR report suggest that part of this may be down to the way aid supporters campaign:

"...some of the communications and fundraising images NGOs and governments use may have contributed to public scepticism – the repeated use of images that show people living in desperate need has created an impression that very little has changed over the past few decades."

As well as the more common idea of repeated appeals eventually fatiguing our heart-strings, it is a good point that the people are not stupid. They willingly contribute to charitable appeals for the victims Syria, or the Japanese tsunami, but they also pay attention to longer running problems. If the same countries, which we give money to, hit the same problems years or decades after we started handing out aid, it's not unreasonable to ask the question: is it doing any good?

Uncomfortable truths

Over 70 per cent now thinkthe budget is too high, and only 7 per cent suppor tringfencing and increasing the aid budget. 

It's a grim picture for those want to see Britain spending more on aid. The uncomfortable truth is they may well only have themselves to blame for the failure to win popular support.

It's not enough to say there's a problem that needs fixing - there are problems at home that need fixing, too, of which people are keenly aware.

It's not enough to say people don't support more aid because they're ignorant - if anything, the more they learn about our aid budget, the more sceptical they get.

Most of all, it's not enough to air the same images and arguments year after year. At worst, doing so has fuelled a belief that our aid is not solving the problems it is supposed to solve.

Instead, the focus must be on measurable, clear projects. Eradicating diseases, for example, is a clearly understood, far more popular, approach than simply giving budgetary support which disappears into a bureaucratic labyrinth. If aid advocates want to get their way, they need to change their approach.


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