Communicating with the public on aid and development spending: we need a better story

by | Jun 25, 2012

The comprehensive Data report released today by the One campaign reveals that the flow of aid from Europe to developing countries fell by €700 million in 2011, the first such drop in almost a decade. The crisis in the Eurozone and the squeeze created by austerity measures are taking the blame for this, with Greece and Spain having – understandably – made the largest cuts in their development budgets.

So far, much of the commentary has concentrated on what this means for the EU in terms of its pledge to contribute 0.7% of national income towards achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.  Although the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands are on track to meet this target, many other European countries will have to stump up billions more in order to do so.  This is a tall order at a time when cuts in public spending are being made across the board.

However, new research from IPPR and the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), also published today, suggests that this debate is missing the point somewhat.  Instead of focusing on ‘getting to 0.7%’, more attention needs to be paid to addressing declining levels of popular support for aid.

In February and March of this year, IPPR and ODI held a series of deliberative workshops around the UK: in London, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Evesham.  These sessions gave us a chance to have in-depth conversations with diverse groups of UK voters, both to hear their views on various aspects of the aid and development debate and to better understand the values and attitudes that underpin them.  The messages we took from these were mixed.

On the one hand, we found that the public do generally differentiate between aid and development, and that they regard the latter as a positive and long-term effort to improve living standards, education and governance in developing countries.  This is seen as a process that individuals in developing countries can participate in.  On the other, we heard a great deal of scepticism about aid, which is regarded primarily as a transfer of resources from rich to poor countries and a short-term fix for urgent problems.  We also observed a fairly ‘two dimensional’ understanding on the part of the public about the realities of life in developing countries.  Participants did not see individuals living in these countries as having much choice or control over their own destinies, and there were comments about the fact that they just seemed to be ‘living for the day, with no options’.  The focus of the discussion was very much on what these people did not have (including jobs, education and food) as opposed to what they might actually possess (such as indigenous knowledge, economic activity, and so on).

We wanted to look at whether the financial crisis was having an impact on peoples’ views, and this certainly appeared to be the case, with individuals across all the workshops observing that it was particularly important that ‘charity should begin at home’ in a time of economic hardship.  However, austerity measures alone cannot account for falling levels of public support for maintaining, let alone increasing the UK aid budget.  One of the clearest findings that emerged from the workshops is that public scepticism of aid is being driven by some of the images and stories used by NGOs and governments in their communications and fundraising campaigns.  The repeated use of images that show people living in desperate need has created an impression that very little has changed over the past few decades.  Many of the participants mentioned the Live Aid and Make Poverty History campaigns, with a common view being that these must not have served their purpose if massive amounts of aid are still required.  As one participant in Edinburgh said:

This has been happening for years and years and years, so it’s almost like a cycle and I think sometimes you get a bit cynical and think there are things being put in place, why are they going wrong?  Why are they not changing things?

This is a significant challenge for NGOs, many of whom rely on ‘heartstring appeals’ to raise money for their activities in developing countries.  But our research suggests that there may be better ways to inform the public about the real benefits of aid and development, without glossing over the problems involved in delivering it.

We found that the public were most engaged when they heard stories about how change happens in developing countries.  For example, the introduction of information about how Vietnam and Brazil have managed to achieve huge cuts in levels of hunger elicited a positive reaction, and requests to hear more about how this had been accomplished.  Rather than a simple reassurance that ‘aid works’, people want to hear about how and why it works, why it doesn’t always work, and the reasons why aid alone cannot achieve development targets. Process and progress stories will both be central to winning sustainable public support for aid and development in the future.

2013 is an important year for the development community in this country.  With the UK chairing the G8 and David Cameron co-chairing the new UN committee set up to consider what should follow the Millennium Development Goals, there is a critical opportunity to positively shape the global debate about aid and development, and to focus minds on the best ways to work in partnership with developing countries in order to ultimately make aid obsolete.  Campaigners are already starting to think about new ways of communicating with the public on these issues – it is essential that these messages are framed in ways that do not work to undermine support over the longer term.


  • Avatar

    Alex Glennie is a Principal Researcher in International Innovation at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta). She joined Nesta in 2015, having previously worked in senior research roles at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. She works across a range of issues relating to innovation and international development, and is currently leading a programme of work on innovation agencies.

More from Global Dashboard

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable. Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors....

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...