08 December 2010

UK public: use aid to promote human rights

Today is the 60th anniversary of the UN-sponsored Human Rights Day.

So its fitting that the UK Public Opinion Monitor (which IDS co-manages and analyses data from) asks, in its latest report, what the UK public thinks about aid and human rights.

The Monitor assesses and analyses what the UK public think of a range of international issues, including international development. It is a panel of UK residents, and the repeat interactions with the respondents allow us to do more serious causal analysis that opinion polls.

The panel were asked "how important should each of the following factors be in deciding how and where the aid budget is spent?"

The options were (and multiple factors could be selected)
  • Benefits to the UK economy
  • Reducing Poverty in poor countries
  • Offsetting the impact of climate change on poor countries
  • Promoting better government in poor countries
  • Historical links with other countries
  • Promoting the UK's influence in the world
  • Promoting economic growth in poor countries
  • Promoting human rights in poor countries
  • Promoting UK security
Each factor could be ranked from very unimportant to very important (including a don't know response)

Promoting human rights came top, with over 84% of the 2700 respondents saying this was important or very important. Reducing poverty in poor countries, promoting better government and promoting economic growth were at almost the same level as this.

With this high level of support for human rights, there was not much difference by age, gender or political affiliation.

What to make of this result? On the one hand, should we be surprised? Who can argue against human rights as a motherhood and apple pie issue, especially when choosing human rights does not crowd out choices about the other factors? Or perhaps the other factors split the non-human rights responses? Also, the previous round of the survey did find that despite severe austerity measures and cuts to public services, more than 6 out of 10 people still thought it morally right for the UK to help developing countries.

Nevertheless, I find 84% a surprisingly proportion (although I don't know why it surprises me--perhaps I am completely out of touch).

But let's say it is real. Beyond rhetoric and box ticking, what might an aid agency do to incorporate human rights more strongly into its core business? Some examples might be:
  • incorporate human rights performance into aid allocation formulas
  • lobby to include performance on human rights as one of the post-2015 MDGs
  • incorporate human rights performance of aid into definitions of aid quality
  • withdraw aid more quickly in the face of widespread rights abuses
More analysis of these tantalising data need to be done to establish causal drivers, but while DFID is thinking hard about how to allocate our aid, this is a timely reminder to not forget about a potential aid recipient's performance on human rights.

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