By Spencer Henson
Today is Red Nose Day, a nation-wide initiative when, in the UK, people do funny things to raise funds for Comic Relief, much of which are spent on projects benefiting the poor in the developing world. The day successfully brings people together and raises awareness about global poverty. Perhaps more importantly it gets people to put their hands in their pocket; £107 million was raised on Red Nose Day in 2011. And they keep giving throughout the year. Roughly £1.1 billion was donated to organisations engaged in overseas development in 2011, on the basis of figures provided by UK Giving (PDF).
So how does this public display of compassion in the face of global poverty tally with recent findings about public attitudes to the UK government’s aid spending and commitment to reaching the target of 0.7% of national income? Several surveys, including recent results from the UK Public Opinion Monitor (UKPOM) based at IDS, suggest that there has been a decline in support for UK overseas aid spending. Over 60 per cent of people appear to favour a cut in aid spending. Although many people do see the moral case for giving aid, it is common for them to believe that much of this money is wasted and that, especially in a time of austerity, priority should be given to the poor at home. In contrast, many UK businesses have expressed support for aid. In fact, a number of them, including BP and GlaxoSmithKlein, have recently written to David Cameron, lauding aid as a “smart investment” that not only works but that could bring benefits to the UK in the longer-term. The government for its part still appears committed to reaching the 0.7% target.
So, why this apparent disconnect between the propensity to donate to the likes of Comic Relief and such scepticism about aid? Do the UK public trust charities to deliver development (and spend their money) more effectively than government? Do people construct the notion of ‘aid’ differently to that of a ‘donation’? Is this about control; you know who you donate to and (at least in broad terms) how it will be spent, but maybe feel more distant from government decisions over who gets aid and what it is used for? For those who believe that the aid given by the UK government is an important weapon in the fight against global poverty, these are important questions.
Perhaps a new conversation around aid and development can help do this. One that moves beyond the seeming fixation with 0.7% and engages in a more honest dialogue about UK aid that reflects the realities of the world today, and the position of ‘developed’ versus ‘developing’ countries and the ‘rich’ versus the ‘poor’ within it. Perhaps then we could start to translate the UK public’s generosity to charities and their belief in the moral case for helping developing countries into more support for the UK government’s stance on aid?