06 October 2011

UK Attitudes to Aid: Minding the Gap Between Political Leaders and the Public

This morning I was interviewed by a TV reporter on the results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor on public attitudes to aid. It will be interesting to see how they present my evidence. I have a sinking feeling I will be presented as an aid-sceptic. I hope my instincts are wrong on this occasion.

Quite unrelatedly (I think) Andrew Mitchell, the UK's Secretary of State for International Development, was interviewed by the Independent newspaper in Saturday’s edition. He cited some encouraging private polling which found that the number of people who agree that “even as we deal with our deficit, we should be proud of our aid commitments” has risen from 48 per cent three months ago to 51 per cent at present, while 38 per cent disagree.

It is good news that this most recent polling shows support is holding firm and perhaps it signals a positive response to DFID's efforts in 2011 to demonstrate the positive force that aid can be.

Results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UK POM), run by IDS, had shown a deterioration in public support for aid in 2010.

In June 2010, 63% of people in the panel thought aid should be cut in context of addressing deficit. By November 2010, this figure had risen to 71%.

When we investigated the longer term views, the results were more positive. In March 2011 we asked UK POM participants what they thought about aid spending in 5 –10 years time. The negative response fell significantly: 51% thought aid should be cut in the longer term.

And in June of 2011 when we asked UK POM participants whether they agreed with the statement that their lives would become "much more dependent on events elsewhere" in 5 years time and again in 50 years time, the 50 year agreement numbers increased dramatically.

So some of the perceptions about aid are clearly linked to the current economic conditions in the UK and in the longer term people feel more supportive of aid and understand we will be living in a more interdependent world (where aid will be important in building political and economic relationships).

But the news from the Governor of the Bank of England today "the most serious financial crisis at least since the 1930s if not ever" makes the longer term feel even further away.

So what will build support for aid now?

• first, recognise the strong base we already have--the UK public feels the need to help--UK POM results from early 2010 show that 6 out of 10 of the UK public feel we have a “moral obligation” to help poor people wherever they live

• second, more evidence about when aid works is also important--systematic reviews are beginning to marshal an important type of evidence, and the ones I have read show that there are plenty of interventions--many supported by aid--that are having a real positive impact on people's lives

• third, the UK Aid Watchdog (ICAI) is becoming more important as another avenue for citizens to ask questions about aid effectiveness and for aid's effectiveness to emerge

• fourth, contextualising helps -- when we asked UK POM participants whether they agreed that aid to India should be at £280 million per year, 66% disagreed, but when we pointed out that India contained more people living in poverty than sub Saharan Africa, the percent who disagreed dropped to 50.

• fifth, those of us who have seen the sustainable support that aid can give to those living in the most desperate conditions must tell those stories to their friends, families, neighbours, communities and MPs

• finally, and I think most important, we need to be more prepared to support those directly affected by aid in sharing their experiences of aid--these are the most authentic voices and testimonies to the strengths and weaknesses of aid

Leadership is about doing the right thing, not necessarily the popular thing. But when will the gap between the leadership of the main political parties and the public on the commitment to aid become unsustainable? Those who believe that aid can do great things must support the leaders of the 3 main parties as long as the evidence supports us. For now, it does.


Anonymous said...

Dear Lawrence,

I wonder if you may be interested in this: http://thedevelopmentroast.org/2011/06/01/metaphor-magic-in-opinion-forming/

Lawrence Haddad said...

Dear anonymous--a very nice piece and thanks for introducing me to your blog (recommended). Have you read Framed? I blogged on it a few months ago. Best, Lawrence