Yet another story…

Panorama has made the news following an investigation into an Adam Smith International policing programme in Syria. Panorama alleges that The Free Syrian Police have

  • Cooperated with courts carrying out summary executions
  • Paid police salaries in cash which has then been forced out of them by extremist group
  • Allowed the extremist group handpicked officers
  • Placed dead and fictitious people are on the payroll.

These allegations come after years of attacks in which individual programmes are criticised in the media for shortcomings and perceived shortcomings. The development community should continue to expect this scrutiny and the criticism which comes with it.

How do these stories impact our audiences perceptions?

It’s not the role of this blog to identify the rights and wrongs of the case, but rather to help our readership understand what impact these stories have on public support for aid and how we can communicate to the public to demonstrate the case for continued aid.

There is lots of evidence which shows that these sorts of stories, highlighting waste and corruption, does have a negative impact on public attitudes.

The AAT academic team has undertaken analysis which shows that as audiences’ perceptions of waste and corruption become worse these worsening perceptions drive disengagement from global poverty; that is that as people become more negative about whether aid is efficacious or whether corrupt leaders and others are siphoning off funding and other resources from aid programmes those audiences become increasingly unlikely to take part by donating, sharing stories, taking part in campaigns etc.

We also see in focus groups and other qualitative research that corruption is often brought up as a reason not to support aid. My own observation is that very often people who use this  argument do so as a way of explaining their resentment of the support which the British people provide to people in desperate poverty; it offers a post-rationalisation, an attempt to excuse, a more callous rejection of the popular belief that ‘we should help if we can.’

The academic AAT team have also undertaken an experiment testing what happens to support for specific programmes when bribery is mentioned to an audience. In this experiment a portion of the survey respondents were given some information about a fictitious situation in Kenya.

The control group were given the following information: “More than 40% of people in Kenya live below the poverty line and 10,000 children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unsafe water.”

A further group was given some information about bribery in Kenya, the above information was supplemented with “Corruption is also a reality of life in Kenya, which makes it difficult for ordinary people who have to pay to see a doctor or get a document signed. Last year alone, more than 44% of Kenyans reported having to pay a bribe for basic services.”

Nationally representative samples were asked “To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should stop giving aid to poor countries like Kenya?” 

27.4% of the first group (no mention of bribery) said that they agreed aid should be cut, however 37.4% of those exposed to the line about bribery said that aid should be cut. So even without any mention of aid spending, aid programme inefficiencies and waste, simply mentioning local bribery increased support for cutting aid by 10 percentage points.

It is clear that stories, such as this Panorama one about delivering aid in Syria, play a role in undermining support for aid.

What can we do about it?

The experiment about bribery in Kenya went on to test six messages representing arguments that various international development actors have used over the years to defend aid; or at least to contextualise and moderate concern about corruption and waste to a degree more in line with the scale of the problem. Some messages had no statistically significant impact on audiences, others increased agreement with cutting aid, and two actually succeeded in reducing opposition to aid. Those ‘winning’ arguments were that aid works (despite corruption) and that local civil society organisations are auditing accounts and holding decision makers to account.

Given the insight which we have in the DevCommsLab team we would suggest that these two arguments should be the focus of any public communications responding to allegations of corruption and waste.

I would add a few stylistic points to how these messages are delivered:

  1. Use tangible and relatable examples of how aid is working – talk about visiting a classroom, clinic or police station where aid is educating, healing and promoting the rule of law in a way which makes sense to someone who doesn’t think about poverty overseas very often
  2.  Don’t, don’t, don’t over complicate your examples of dealing with corruption – we tested a message about pursing international tax dodgers and it actually increased propensity for people to want to cut aid.
  3. Don’t use statistics, especially big statistics. People are very unlikely to be persuaded by a statistic which they are not predisposed to agree with and so giving statistics which are unrelatable (e.g. big/ global) will add to your audience’s suspicion rather than reducing their concern.

Don’t forget to make the moral case

As I’ve blogged about here previously, it is fundamental to our efforts to widen support for development that we increase the degree to which people see reduction of global poverty as aligned with their own moral beliefs. There’s a forthcoming blog which will look in more detail at which moral frames work best, but for now I’ll share the one which works best; the principle that human beings have a right not to suffer. This ‘natural rights’ moral frame is helpful in explaining why DFID, Adam Smith International and others have to operate in difficult settings such as conflict ridden Syria; it’s simply wrong that people should have to live in the conditions which they are subjected to in Syria that’s why we’re investing in local police; it’s us playing our part, alongside five other countries, to try to reduce the horrific suffering people there have suffered.

Get in touch if you would like advice on how you can plan to respond to this or future allegations about misused aid.


About the author(s)

Will Tucker

Will is a communications and advocacy consultant. He leads partner and sector engagement with the Aid Attitudes Tracker in the UK and works on behaviour change, public attitudes and advocacy strategy and delivery with a range of charities and philanthropic clients.


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