US and UKAID: Signed for

Dan Watson


Spot the difference? USAID English, USAID Arabic, UKAID

Were you aware that that DfID’s approach to its branding bore such striking similarity to our American friend’s? The two organisations’ explanations for their visual strategies certainly speak volumes about their perception of aid and international development’s status and role within their nations.

With its new place, since 9/11, closely integrated into the United States’ National Security Strategy, USAID saw the need to make its contribution overseas more visible. That is the philosophy behind the subsequent rebranding of US foreign assistance as “from the American people”. Made conscious of their role as “America’s good-news story” USAID were instructed to make their work abroad more obviously attributable to the US.

This seems to have been remarkably successful in the wake of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. As a Pew study showed, in Indonesia positive opinions of the US, as low as 15% in 2003, rose sharply by 2005 to 38% with 79% of Indonesians citing the US aid effort as the reason for their more favourable view. American aid has hardly been painted as apolitical. Colin Powell publicly declared that American support for humanitarian relief was a means to “dry up those pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activities”.

Alice Boa proposed a reconsideration of US-Southeast Asia policy in her paper that highlights the history that might have prompted the impressive response. She is not alone in questioning whether the strong American presence after the disaster was a means of counterbalancing the ill feeling felt towards the US following the lacking response Asian financial crisis. Further, it’s often argued, the American response was due to concern about the rising influence of China in the region. America’s “from the American people” stencil is busy adorning all kinds of aid packages but it seems that its main role is much the same as that old slogan, hearts and minds.

DfID changed its branding in late June to include the union flag and the phrase “from the British people”. Perhaps we ought to be glad that this decision wasn’t taken on the back of Olympic fever, else we might have been delivering “from the Great British people”. This was, according to Andrew Mitchell MP, in order to ensure that “aid funded by the British people should be easily and clearly identified as coming from the UK”.

Why was Mitchell so concerned with highlighting the root of aid money? Well, with DfID’s budget ring-fenced whilst most of the rest of Europe is decreasing their aid spending, my guess is that Mitchell was advised to enact a change that would make taxpayers feel their contribution was valued. Or, as is perhaps more likely, he wanted to leave the department with something to remember him by. Or, yet another possibility, he seized the opportunity to make the most of this small window of patriotism before it’s slammed shut by national embarrassment.

DfID says that an exception to its branding requirement can be made, at the request to ministers, if it could be “undignified for the recipients of our support. For example, on sensitive health supplies”. I am unsure what constitutes “sensitive” health supplies, but the distinction sounds crude and the implications profoundly insensitive. Of course there are issues more than this, beyond the uncomfortable feeling I get when seeing these garish goods looking for all the world like last minute souvenirs. One that immediately springs to mind is a topic I looked at a couple of weeks ago. How correct is it to label UK aid with the tag British when much concern at the moment surrounds the very insular nature of our aid programme disbursement?

I argued a couple of weeks ago that the discussion currently did a disservice to DfID’s spending strategy as it ignored that fact that DfID, as a commissioning organisation, can only choose from the options that are available to it whilst still endeavouring to meet its value-for-money targets. Really, I said, the onus now ought to be on building capacity from the ground up; that is to say building up a resource of suppliers in countries that will then produce the delivery organisations in the future (a point taken up by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s advert the following week). So, how useful is it to label UK aid as from the British people? Well, it’s neither truthful nor useful. If we want ownership of development programmes to be taken up by organisations within the partner country then there is absolutely no use waving the origin of products in their face. If we were brought up on exclusively imported apples would we think to grow our own? Probably not.

Both the UK and the US’ aid programmes are seeking to advertise their work very publicly. The American model is one of battling to repair its international image in the face of previous indiscretions and ongoing conflict. For the UK it seems to be mostly an exercise in flag waving for the sake of the taxpayer. I do think that representation is a very interesting debate and this certainly won’t be the end of this topic.

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