Friday, 14 October 2011

Do we care about development when times are tough?

By Spencer Henson

Media commentary across many of the traditional donor countries suggests that aid budgets are under pressure and that tax payers in many of these countries are at best ambivalent about development assistance. 

There is a broad political consensus for increases in aid spending in the UK, despite deep cuts in most other areas of public expenditure.  However, results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM), an ongoing IDS survey aiming to understand public attitudes to development, suggest the public think aid should be cut. The UK government has countered that we in the rich world have a moral obligation to help the World’s poor.  Although, it is not clear that the UK public are listening.

But are our concerns about the poor really so fickle? 

Do we really believe that we can only ‘afford’ to help the poor when times are good, whilst ‘looking after number one’ when times are tough.  It is a more complicated than that: 
  • On the one hand, results from the UKPOM suggest that we continue to be concerned about poverty ‘at home’.  When times are tough and when more of the people that live near to us are struggling, UK poverty is given greater priority. 
  • On the other, the UKPOM also suggests that public engagement with charities that work in developing countries has held up under current conditions of austerity.  Indeed, more people seem to give regularly to international development than many other ‘good causes’, and causes that might be of benefit to them themselves. 
Of course, periodic appeals for money when humanitarian crises strike play a big role here; and there have been a number of these in the last year or two.  But this hardly suggests that we in the rich world ‘don’t care’ about the plight of those in the poorest parts of the world.

Looking beyond the current economic plight of many people in the UK provides a far more ‘rosy’ picture.  Broadly, people agree with the government - we do have a moral obligation to help those in the poorest parts of the world. 

The UKPOM also suggests that there is stronger support for increases in aid spending in the longer term.  However, many people remain sceptical as to whether aid works, even if they can see beyond the stereotype of stashes of cash in Swiss bank accounts.  This requires that we have positive evidence of what works (and what doesn’t) and are prepared to share it with the world in a way that is easy to comprehend and that grabs attention.

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