New report: selling aid as self interest doesn’t work
Last month, our director, Deborah Doane, blogged about the worrying noises coming out of DFID lately on aid. Indeed, the past few months have seen proposals like moving towards a ‘sovereign wealth fund’ model of aid that would see ‘returns for the UK taxpayer’. And Andrew Mitchell has been busy recasting aid as something that we give because it is in the UK national interest, rather than as a purely altruistic gesture.
Ostensibly, the idea behind all of this is to sell the idea of increased foreign development assistance to the British public, who are assumed to be sceptical of foreign aid in a time of economic crisis. It appears the logic is that people will be won back to the idea of aid if only it can be proved that ‘we’ are somehow getting something out of the deal.
Thankfully, a new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Overseas Development Institute appears to show what many progressive voices have been saying for a long time – most people don’t want aid to benefit us, they want to see it leading to real benefits for the poorest:
Both our research and the latest findings from the field of cognitive science show that DFID’s recent attempts to reframe the case for development as being in Britain’s self-interest do not resonate as much as approaches that focus on what is ‘right’ or fair’. Issues of fairness and the moral commitment to supporting development came through overwhelmingly in participant discussions. Efforts to communicate aid and development issues may therefore be more effective where they relate to these values.
Even more encouragingly, the report also suggests that people are turned off by images of starving children and prefer to see material in which people in the global south appear empowered.
While the importance of aid is often overestimated and aid does not mitigate the need for structural change, it is important that it doesn’t do any harm. When governments feel they must justify aid in terms of self-interest, it can lead to the sort of projects that seek to open up developing country markets to UK companies, or even, as with the sovereign wealth fund, to a situation in which we expect to see financial returns on our ‘investment’ in poor countries. The findings of this report show that the whole premise of this approach is wrong – and that the best way to rally public support for development assistance is to make sure it works for the beneficiaries and reframe it as an issue of justice and fairness.
Alex is a policy officer at WDM.