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Two motivations for giving overseas aid have dominated successive government’s efforts to justify aid spending and build elite and public support: giving based on the needs of the world’s poorest people and the UK’s national interests.

Since 2010, the Conservative government has repeatedly called to tip the balance of aid spending in favour of our national interest – that is, promoting trade deals, jobs and sustainable economic development. Earlier this month, the new International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, again called for UK aid to be given to promote UK interests, and follows on from statements by Boris Johnson claiming that aid will increasingly be linked to foreign policy priorities.

But, how well does ‘aid in the national interest’ land with the public? Are public preferences aligned with government tactics? In this blog, we examine public preferences for giving UK aid, and conclude the government would do better talking less about our national interest and more about mutual interests.

Previous research by Davies, Lightfoot and Johns in 2015 found ‘a small insignificant tendency to favour the use of aid for national interest purposes’. They also found preferences for aid spending were driven by party support: those who support centre-right parties – i.e. the Conservatives and UKIP – were more likely to support UK aid in the national interest. However, in a 2016 YouGov survey, 60% of Britons favoured aid spending decisions based on need, rather than national interest (i.e. trade deals).

In a recent Aid Attitudes Tracker (AAT) survey, we sought to get more insight on whether the British public favours giving aid based primarily on need or our national interests. Using an 11-point scale we ask: Do you think that UK aid to poor countries should be given primarily for the purpose of helping people in poor countries who need it the most, or do you think UK aid should be given primarily to help advance the UK’s business and strategic interests? Finally, in order not to enforce a view on our respondents, we also gave the option of saying the government should not give overseas aid.

Figure 1 shows that there is little support among the British public for giving aid to help advance UK interests, in fact, just 10% of the public choose a response where giving aid should be tipped in favour of UK national interests. Nearly a quarter (24%) favour giving aid based on UK interests and others’ needs equally, and 34% prefer to give UK aid primarily to help people in poor countries who need it the most. Even when we consider those respondents who think the UK should not give aid at all (15%) or ‘Don’t know’ (also 15%) – the British public have a clear order of preferences – give aid based on the needs of people in poor countries; give aid equally and give aid to promote interests at home.

(Note: 0 = The Government should give aid to promote the UK’s business and strategic interests; 5 = The Government should give aid based on our interests and others’ need equally; and 10 = The Government should give aid to help people in poor countries most in need; 11 = The Government should not give aid; 12 = Don’t know.)

Similar to previous research, we also observe party differences (Figure 2). However, even for Conservative party identifiers, less than 2 in 10 favour giving aid to promote UK national interests, and more people favour giving aid based on need – regardless of party support.


But, a key problem is that there are many ways in which aid might or might not work in the national interest – e.g. trade, migration, health security. And some of these may be more or less exclusively self-interested. So, another way we sought to understand the public’s preferences was to provide a list of reasons why the UK should give aid – ranging from those firmly in the national interest, through reasons which we could broadly categorise as mutual interests (benefitting both home and abroad), to reasons based on the needs of poor countries. And, similar to the above, we also gave respondents the option of saying the UK government should not give aid, or to say they ‘don’t know’.

Table 1. Reasons for aid: ‘The UK Government should give aid …

to secure better trade deals National interest
to benefit UK businesses and create jobs at home National interest
to fight terrorism and reduce conflict Mutual interests
to reduce migration Mutual interests
to help fight global diseases like Ebola and Zika Mutual interests
because it’s morally the right thing to do Need
because it’s good to help those who need it the most Need

Figure 3 shows that while ‘Don’t know’ is the most common response, followed by not giving aid, needs based reasons have far more support among the British public. In this set up, the national interest arguments come dead last.



One criticism of this and similar approaches is that respondents are allowed to express a single reason or preference for giving aid, when in fact they may have multiple motivations. To see how, if at all, preferences for giving aid changed we set this up as an experiment where half of our sample randomly received the single response option (as above) and the other half could choose up to three reasons. Figure 4 below shows that when allowed to choose up to three reasons for giving aid, the British public prefer aid that serves mutual interests – 35% of respondents want aid to help flight global diseases like Ebola and Zika and 29% of respondents want aid to help fight terrorism and reduce conflict. This is followed by giving aid based on need – 24% say give aid because it is the right thing to do and we should give aid to those who need it the most. Giving aid in the national interest again garners the least support.


Like Priti Patel before her, Mordaunt has argued that aid in the national interest is a win-win situation, but the Government’s position, has been criticised for “pursuing pathetic headlines in the right-wing press” and for running afoul of UK law which stipulates UK aid for supporting poverty reduction. Aid in the national interest may be a tactic to shore up support among more sceptical elites, but it rings hollow with the British public. Our evidence suggests the government would do better talking less about our national interests, such as addressing migration, or creating business and trade opportunities, and more about mutual interests, particularly around health security and global diseases. It should also not forget that aid given to help those who need it most remains a core priority for the British public.


Note: The AAT survey fielded 8 November – 18 December, 2017; n= 8,001. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Image credit: Russell Watkins/DFID:





About the author(s)

Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson

Jennifer Hudson is Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at University College London. She is part of the Aid Attitudes Tracker (AAT) research team and Director of the UCL Q-Step Centre.

David Hudson

David Hudson is Professor of Politics and Development at the University of Birmingham. He is part of the Aid Attitudes Tracker team and the Director of the Developmental Leadership Program.

Paolo Morini

Aid Attitudes Tracker researcher at University College London. When I'm not planning experiments or analysing data I'm most likely thinking about carbohydrates, prosecco or swimming.


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