Public opinion and overseas aid: an obstacle or a challenge?

Cristina Sarb

Oxfam attitudes blob around which the organisation should build its campaigns. Fits in well with the values identified in the Common Cause Paper.

Building a critical mass of public support for aid is a top priority for policy makers and development campaigners alike. This has been all too apparent, for instance, in the recent decision by the Department for International Development (DFID) to rebrand aid from the UK with a new logo that features the UK flag and the text “from the British people”.

The new logo was intended not only so that “people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided“, but also to give a higher profile to the UK Government’s aid programme among an ostensibly reluctant domestic public.

The then Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell has in various occasions expressed his frustration that the British people are simply unaware of the projects that they are funding. A recent survey about the British public’s attitudes towards development aid has shown that recognition of the DFID logo, while marginally increasing by February 2010, remains low at 22 percent.

More widely, the debate around attitudes on aid tends to be dominated by concerns around the erosion of support for aid. There has been increasing gloom and doom over indications that public support for aid may be in steady decline, as the need to reduce the fiscal deficit puts aid in greater competition with other domestic priorities.

Policy-makers can, naturally, decide the degree to which they choose to respond to the views of the public, but in a context where the pressure on the budget is not likely to ease, public attitudes may have a very real influence indeed. Where, then, does the UK public stand on international aid and development?


Measuring public support

Over the years numerous surveys have been carried out to gauge public attitudes to aid. In general terms, we are witnessing an economic crisis which has had a bearing on public support for aid. However, what the significance of findings from these surveys is and what they really mean deserves a more in-depth consideration.

While opinion surveys give valuable insights into what the public think about aid and development, a certain degree of caution is needed. Measuring attitudes is a complex matter and the picture surveys tend to provide is only partial.

Two examples may illustrate this point. One should be careful, for instance, about reading too much into the results to the question of whether there is public support for increased Government action. Recent survey work reveals that the percentage of those saying the Government should be doing a lot or a bit more to reduce poverty has decreased from 41% in September 2009 to 35% in February 2010.

When interpreting and reporting these findings, one should also note the caveat that has to go along with this: this decline has not been reflected in an increase in the percentage of those who believe that the Government should be doing less on global poverty.

Also, expressed attitudes in surveys are heavily influenced by how the questions are phrased. For instance, the way in which the question on whether people would support additional Government spending on aid is put is likely to have an influence on the findings obtained.

Previous polls have shown that the public greatly over-estimate how much is currently being spent on aid, so using a question which presumes knowledge of the present levels of spending on aid is not without its consequences.

Nevertheless, a focus exclusively on the metrics of public support for aid could divert attention away from the factors which drive these attitudes. A recent report by Common Cause has shown that people’s attitudes towards aid are very significantly influenced by other more general values.

It is worth bearing in mind, then, that beneath the surface of public opinion is a more durable set of values that guide people’s attitudes towards aid. The evidence and debate generated from the values research could provide new solutions to the perennial challenge of improving public support for aid, and ultimately open the possibility of achieving a breakthrough in the years ahead.


Implications for communication

On the one hand, when communicating the importance and benefits of UK spending on overseas aid, there has been a shift within Government to put a much stronger emphasis on the benefits to the UK’s own national interest.

The message that is reinforced over and over again by Government is that of aid as something that we give because it is in the UK national interest. Justifying aid in terms of self-interest is perceived as an attractive proposition especially considering the public’s scepticism of aid in a time of economic crisis.

However, previous polls have shown that support for overseas aid has a strong normative element and appeal to national self-interest lacks traction among the public. For most people, the primary motivation for support aid to developing countries is moral rather than a pragmatic decision based on UK’s self-interest.

Not to take away from the challenge of promoting overseas aid in the current climate, but this raises doubts as to the extent to which the Government can expect to win public support for growing levels of spending on overseas aid by emphasising the direct benefits such spending might accrue for the country’s long-term security.

On the other hand, NGOs must think harder about the content of communications they use for public engagement. A recent report by IPPR and ODI has revealed that there is ‘considerable appetite for more complex stories of how change and progress happens rather than a simple reassurance that ‘aid works”.

However, the report also warns strongly against the continuing use of images of starving children in their public engagement. Beyond the ethical aspect, engaging people with these types of images may offer short-term advantages, but the collateral damage may be significant. This is because of the risk of undermining long-term support by perpetuating a perception that little change has occurred over the past few decades.

What becomes clear from this, then, is that in order to achieve breakthrough in terms of public support for aid, we need a concerted effort to portray those in receipt of overseas aid as being empowered. It is also time to rethink communications to focus on the difference the money actually makes to the lives of those it helps, and the more complex messages around how change occurs.

But most importantly, returning to the findings in the Common Cause and Finding Frame reports, it is only through activating positive values around development that we can begin to engage more effectively with the public in a way that builds long-term support.



The concerns around the fact that on-going economic difficulties will send international aid further down people’s agendas need to be carefully considered. As the International Development Select Committee emphasised in its recent inquiry, “public support is essential to an effective development policy and this could also be threatened if the financial crisis continues to affect the real economy”.

What we should avoid, however, is getting caught up in a perpetual debate on the metrics of public support for aid and, instead, seek to look more at the influence of values on public attitudes towards aid and development.

The real opportunity comes from the realisation that attitudes can be shaped and changed by the way the Government or NGOs communicate on these issues. For the Government, however, this will need rethinking whether its appeal to self-interest has the intended effect.

For NGOs, the challenge will be focusing on communicating the more complex messages of how change in developing countries occurs, as well as working out ways to move to a future model of engagement that activates positive values around development.

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