Public opinion matters
Penny Mordaunt, the UK Secretary of State for International Development, recently set out the UK’s priorities for overseas development aid. She made it clear that her priorities for UK Aid are the same as the public’s priorities, as she perceives them. At the Bond Conference this year she gave the sector another really clear indication of the extent to which public opinion matters. In response to a question from the floor she said:
“We have to improve our communication to the public and explain better what we do, why and what difference it makes; in more creative ways. It’s not legislation that protects the 0.7%, it is the attitude and commitment of the British public.”
This went further than one of her comments in the Bond speech, during which she said “[The British public’s] support is a necessary condition of our work… they continue to give, but I can tell you on many fronts they want us to raise our game: on what you do, on what I fund, and what together we can achieve.”
Overall it is pretty clear – the Secretary of State sees public support as an essential basis for continued political support for aid spending.
Of course aid is by no means the only, or even the biggest, factor in reducing poverty around the world in recent times. But aid does play a part, particularly in reaching people in the most difficult situations and so it is important that the sector seeks to maintain aid quantity and continuously improve aid quality.
Following many years of campaigning by international development organisations in 2015 the UK legislated to make spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid a legally binding commitment. This was an important step but many observers of the press and politics have continued to worry that a future government could reverse the legislation. Aid quality was, and is, also protected by previous Acts in 2002 and 2006.
Penny Mordaunt’s answer, quoted above, however shows that these observers are right to worry that the Acts do not set the policy in stone; “Its not legislation that protects the 0.7%, it’s the attitude and commitment of the British public.”
So what does the public think?
Well, it’s better than you might imagine.
The Aid Attitudes Tracker has been surveying large representative samples of the British population for the last four and a half years. During that time support for aid spending to stay the same or increase has gone up from 43% to 46%, support for aid to be cut has decreased from 53% to 47%. Despite the trend line looking fairly undramatic that’s actually pretty good progress given there’s not been a really significant concerted effort on these attitudes in recent years.
One of the greatest perceived, and real, threats to aid quality is that quality is diluted in the pursuit of achieving national interest goals instead of focusing on reduction of poverty. As explained in more detail in a recent blog on this site when asked whether UK aid should focus on helping people in poor countries most in need, deliver equally on mutual interest or promote UK business and strategic interests, there was a clear plurality for aid being used to focus mostly on poverty reduction.
The Secretary of State’s vision speech has been criticised in some circles for focusing too much on national interest, a criticism put to previous Secretaries of State too. My reading of the speech is that she wants to improve public perceptions, she’s responding to audience insights and she seems to be at least trying to get the communication balance right on poverty reduction vs national interest.
AAT surveys show that for the majority of the public aid should be given primarily to fight poverty, if it happens to benefit us then that’s great. But it is given primarily to reduce poverty, not to benefit us. Indeed AAT surveys have shown that arguments which are more purely ‘national interest’ are consistently rejected by a plurality of the population. For example, in November 2017 we asked whether people agree or disagree with the statement “UK Aid to poor countries helps to prevent terrorism”; 48% disagree and only 20% agree. I think the Secretary of State is getting the tone about right when she says “Some believe… That if we can tackle global poverty and deliver the global goals and benefit the UK into the bargain, then we should. They’re right to believe that.”
Clearly, it is important for the international development sector to keep an eye on the degree to which these national interest arguments gain prominence – both from an aid efficacy point of view, and from a communications point of view. But overall I think the sector should feel some degree of relief that this Secretary of State is making an effort to improve public support for aid spending, is attentive to audience insight, and seems to recognise that aid based on need and which happens to benefit UK interests is the type of aid people can support.
A few notes of caution
Despite the progress on supportive attitudes towards aid spending and for aid which focuses on reducing poverty there are some other attitudes which are more concerning.
Most prominently, concern about aid effectiveness is rife with 45% indicating they believe aid is very ineffective and only 12% indicating that aid is very effective. These perceptions, as with the perceptions of how much should be spent, seem to be improving albeit from a very low base.
Even amongst our most engaged audiences – the most engaged 7% of the population – 29% believe that aid is very ineffective. Watch this space for a future blog looking at the role of progress and efficacy perceptions in generating support.
When we dig into the improvements in support for aid spending it is interesting to see that the improvements in support mostly come from audiences who politically identify as left wing and centrist. Those identifying as left wing supported aid spending staying the same/increasing at a rate of 63% at the start of the AAT rising to 70% in November 2017. Centrists have gone from 45% to 48%, whilst those identifying as right wing have gone from 34% to 35%. It is probable that the sector needs to particularly increase support amongst right wing and centerist audiences if it is going to secure cross party support for aid spending.
My final caution, for this blog, is that it seems unlikely that the barrage of negative headlines and articles aid and international development has experienced in recent years is likely to stop. For some audiences this is likely to be an important factor in drawing down individuals’ propensity to support development aid.
The sector can’t rest on it’s laurels
So perceptions about aid and international development matter; they inform policy making and spending decisions. Attitudes about aid spending aren’t as bad as many assume, and support for aid spending has been gradually improving in recent years. However, people want aid to focus on reducing poverty and there are significant concerns about whether aid is effective at achieving it’s goals. So we can’t rest on our laurels, as individuals and organisations who support the UK playing a big role in reducing poverty around the world we have to keep up, and increase our efforts to improve public perceptions and support for aid.