Public want to see how overseas aid works

UK aid

Development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, says it is ‘really insulting’ when critics say what he does ‘is just about detoxifying the Conservative party’. He claims ‘there is a deep passion and commitment to international development’ in his party. Whether you believe him or not, everyone knows there is significant scepticism about Britain’s overseas aid programme among the British public.

It’s not just in Britain, but across Europe that voters are increasingly putting pressure on politicians to think again about the promises they made at the G8 in Gleneagles, both to increase overseas aid and to focus more of it on development in Africa. This week’s DATA report from the ONE campaign shows that governments across Europe are rowing back on their commitments. Even in Britain, the aid budget fell in real terms by 0.8% last year because the government have held steady what they inherited until the promised symbolic rise to 0.7% in 2013.

I’ve written several times for the New Statesman (hereherehere and here) about the government’s failure to enshrine this funding in law in the way they promised. Call me old fashioned, but I think politicians should keep their promises, even if they are unpopular when they make them.

One of Mitchell’s ideas to make UK aid more popular is to put union jack flags on a ‘bag of life-saving food aid or a water pump in a remote village’. The ODI and IPPR think tanks have been exploring public attitudes on aid with the public themselves in focus groups and deliberative workshops. Our conclusion is that DFID, NGOs and everyone involved in international develop needs to tell a better story to the British public about what they are doing with their money. Crucially, the public accept the moral argument and are sceptically about development being in Britain’s self-interest.

A key insight is that campaigns that highlight the needs of the poor, with the exception of the kind of disaster relief campaigns that the Disasters Emergency Committee is so effective at fundraising for, can often be counter-productive. Pulling at the heart strings seems to lead people to question the point of ‘throwing good money after bad’ and reinforce a fear that international development might be a pointless exercise, beset with corruption and waste. Quite simply, the public want to be convinced that aid works, to understand how it works, and that their money is being well spent. That’s something that charities and campaigners need to keep in mind for next year’s campaigning around the G20 and the next phase of UN global development goals.

Andrew Mitchell says that ‘if you ask people how much money they think goes on overseas aid, it’s 17.8 per cent of public expenditure. If you ask them what the right figure is, they come out at about 7.5 per cent. What is the actual figure? One point one per cent’. A little really does go a long way in the developing world.

Just ask Elizabeth Eidngo, from South Sudan, about the difference the water pump that your taxes helped pay for has made to her children. Or ask Aisha Moh’d Kazaure, the midwife in Nigeria, about the lives she has saved using medicine paid for by your taxes. Help to make sure the government keep their promises until 2015 and another 50,000 women will be saved from death during pregnancy and childbirth and another 250,000 newborn babies will survive. Aid works. Progressives need to make sure they show the public how.


Richard Darlington was special adviser at DFID and is now head of news at IPPR. He tweets @RDarlo


Photo: Ministry of Defence

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  • Dan Mccurry

    The problem is that aid gets spent on soft aid issues such as medicine, when we should be building economies by building roads. All we’re doing by reducing disease is creating more economic immigrants of the future because they don’t have an economy in their own country.