By Spencer Henson
Campaigners for increases in the UK’s aid to developing countries can sit back in satisfaction, knowing that there is broad-based political consensus in support of achieving the United Nation’s target of 0.7% of national income by 2013. Further, this consensus is being played out in practice given that we are seeing significant increases in the budget of the Department for International Development (DFID), whilst almost every other area of public expenditure is being slashed. Soon, the UK will be able to hold its head high within the donor community as one of the few countries ‘putting its money where its mouth is’.
But where do the UK public stand on this commitment to increase aid spending? Recent research at IDS using the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM) indicates that upwards of 70 per cent of the general public support reductions rather than increases in aid spending, in the context of efforts to counter the UK’s budget deficit. Supporters of any increases in aid spending, let alone significant increases in spending, are a small minority, and their numbers are in decline. The stark contrast between the political consensus and public opinion should send the alarm bells ringing. When public services directed at the UK public are being cut, and when large swathes of the press are pointing a sceptical lens at the work of DFID, how wide a gulf between the political consensus and public opinion is sustainable? At what stage will the government ‘blink’ and begin reflecting on the political expediency of increasing aid spending?
Of course, the public’s views on aid are held in the context of little or no knowledge of how much aid the UK gives to developing countries, how it is spent and where. This unawareness highlights the need for aid proponents, and especially the government, to engage more actively and effectively with the public on development issues and the role of UKaid. This is not something for the future, but for now. Paradoxically, however, DFID is cutting back rather than enhancing its public engagement activities, in the context of the curtailment of ‘marketing’ spending across government as a whole. Who then will make the case for aid? Who then will counteract the almost inevitable increasing scepticism that now is not the right time to increase aid spending?