People aren't against aid, they just want to know that it works

Time to turn the page on the development story.

Signs of scepticism amongst the UK public towards the 0.7% spending target is often seen as evidence of waning enthusiasm for aid and development. Yet political consensus holds sway across Whitehall that development is an endeavour core to Britain’s values and interests. The austerity agenda, it is assumed, means an end to the British public’s compassion towards those worse off than themselves. To test these assumptions, Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and IPPR set out across the country to hold a series of deliberative workshops with UK voters, exploring the logic and understanding that shapes attitudes towards development and aid. We found that despite the current economic climate, there is still a well of public support for development spending but - and it is a significant but - people are beginning to reject the way the fight against global poverty has been portrayed in the years since the first Live Aid concert.

Strong moral values underpin commitments to development, which persists despite recent polling. Issues of fairness came up repeatedly across the workshops, with gross inequalities between nations and peoples’ generally seen as being ‘not right’. While International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has talked about the need to find strategic ‘win-wins’ for the UK, we found this argument less convincing to people than the moral imperative. 

Despite this latent support, findings suggest a shallow and narrow understanding of issues of aid and development, however. Discussions focused on what developing countries did not have, with little choice or control for people within those countries. As a participant in London said “In terms of poverty, as well as lack of luxury, it’s a lack of a future, it’s a trap, poverty trap they’re stuck in, just living for the day, where there’s no option”. There was seemingly little awareness of the realities of people’s lives and experiences in poorer countries. For example, developing countries were viewed as something of a ‘blank slate’ – in need of jobs, education, food with little recognition of what countries may already have (in terms of indigenous knowledge, economy activity and so on).

Crucially, our findings suggest this shallow understanding reflects not a lack of interest but rather some of the limitations of the public discourse and messaging to date. Workshop participants repeatedly asked for a richer understanding of these issues, and in some cases, there were signs of growing rejection of the predominant imagery and messages they feel they have received.

There were repeated references to the original Live Aid concerts, revealing the influence of these high profile events but also that they can unwittingly reinforce a sense that progress is lacking : “I was around when Live Aid shocked everybody and still the problem hasn’t been sorted” said a participant in Edinburgh. And there were signs of growing scepticism at the tactics and images used to raise funds – “You get the child on adverts looking miserable and they’re all malnourished and they look miserable and the adverts show the most saddest, miserable child you could ever have but that might not be the case…”

Thus, while heartstring campaigns and appeals may well have proven effective at putting hands in pockets, they seem to be affecting the wider climate of public opinion – and may have negative impacts in the future quest for hearts and minds.

What needs to be done differently? There is a common assumption that the general public has limited interest or ability to understand complex issues; and that simple messages and appeals are likely to be most effective. In contrast, our research shows real appetite for a much greater understanding of how progress happens, and the process through which change occurs.

This came through strongly in all the workshops – participants were most engaged when they heard stories of progress and were intrigued to know more how about how change had happened.

Rather than being told ‘aid works’, they wanted to know how aid works (and were open to hearing why it may not always work). This means providing stories, not statistics, that show how change happens. There is a clear desire to know when countries or communities graduate out of receiving aid – indicating this should be something that is celebrated and championed, when done for the right reasons.

This is a wake-up call – our findings indicate that the UK public wants a deeper understanding of how development happens and how it can be supported; and they are sceptical of conventional campaigns and messages which they perceive as offering only a partial picture. It’s a moment of opportunity to reshape some of the public discourse here; particularly as David Cameron takes up his co-chair of the new UN committee on the next round of global development targets to replace the Millenium Development Goals, and as UK NGOs and others gear up to develop new joint campaigns. And some of this is already underway - the ODI is building a library of progress stories, that catalogue how change has been achieved in different countries. Others, such as Comic Relief are experimenting with new ways of communicating. But it hasn’t yet gone far enough.

The world has changed. The public know this, but don’t know how. It’s time for those who built the current consensus to start painting a new picture of efforts to end global poverty.

Read IPPR and ODI's new report: Understanding public attitudes to aid and development

Leni Wild is a research fellow at the ODI

Haitians receiving international food parcels. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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