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
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle