Will Straw | September 20th 2012 | @GlobalMkts
When things are going badly at home, politicians often look to foreign policy to project a sense of leadership and purpose. Next year could provide an opportunity for David Cameron to do the same when Britain takes on the presidency of the G8 group of rich nations.
Given his co-chairmanship of a UN committee on long-term goals for international development, he may well choose to focus on that issue. The Prime Minister has made a virtue of his commitment to protecting Britain’s aid budget from spending cuts and the new international development secretary, Justine Greening, moved to reassure campaigners this week saying that ring fencing the budget was “the right thing to do”.
But if Justine Greening is to win the public debate over aid spending, she will need to sharpen her message. Although people usually overestimate the size of DfID’s budget, Chatham House and YouGov have found that even when told how much is spent on overseas aid, 61 per cent of people think it is too much.
Greening’s first foray into this public debate centred on setting out a self-interested case for expanding the budget. She said, “A strong focus on international development is also the smart thing for Britain to do. You only have to look at the business generated by China and India to see the potential they provide for UK companies as their export markets continue to develop. My work at international development will … build strong relationships around the world, as the developing countries of today become our trading partners of tomorrow."
Recent research by IPPR and the Overseas Development Institute shows that framing is key. Invoking arguments about self-interest are not as effective as appealing to people’s moral values. But campaigners and politicians need to be careful to ensure that in doing so they show how aid can make a difference on the ground rather than constantly tugging on voters’ heart strings.
From 2005 to 2010, economic growth in Africa averaged between 4 and 7 per cent with the continent home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies. Aid from Europe contributed to much of this progress with more than five million children vaccinated against measles and more than nine million children given a chance to go to school. But the public are not aware.
In one of the focus groups we organised someone from the Midlands said, “I was around when Live Aid shocked everybody and still the problem hasn’t been sorted, we’re giving to charities, doing our stuff and it’s still happening.” Another in Newcastle said, “they never show you the success stories, they never say ‘look at this hospital we’ve built, look at the wells we’ve made with the money that’s come in’.”
Our report recommends that NGOs and government should do more to ensure they understand the impact that their messages and campaigns have on the wider public. This should start with greater emphasis on how change can (and does) occur in developing countries. If Cameron’s team start to get their messaging right, he may be able to make 2013 the year when public opinion on aid begins to change.
Economist Conferences' Africa Summit takes place on February 5th, 2013. Click here for more information on topics and speakers.