Five Things We Know: Public Opinion on Foreign Aid

Foreign aid, which once held a position as one of the most contested policy areas in Westminster, has lost some of its potency over recent years – in part because of the enduring commitment successive Conservative governments have made to the UK spending 0.7% of GNI on overseas development. Although the Conservative Party has changed leaders three times in the past decade, each has recognised the significance of the 0.7% pledge – not only in terms of the UK’s capacity to effect change, but as a foundational underpinning of the nation’s soft power, diplomatic influence and strategic interests.

Although some within the aid sector were concerned about the intentions behind the merger of the UK’s aid department, DFID, with the foreign office – creating the rather cumbersomely named Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), there was no evidence to suggest that this integration agenda was being driven to any substantive degree by a desire to cut the aid budget down the size. Certainly, there has been a focus on integration ‘efficiencies’, and questions were raised about the restrictive nature of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) spending criteria, but the 0.7% commitment remained steadfast. Then came the pandemic.

The extraordinary strains the response to the coronavirus pandemic has placed on Government finances have necessitated belt tightening across the board. At the same time, the pandemic itself, the shockwaves it has sent across global markets and supply chains, and the pressure placed on international development spending across both the private and public sectors, threatens to imperil the hard-won progress that has been made in many communities around the world.

In the end, the decision was taken to temporarily reduce the UK’s aid commitment to 0.5% of GNI, in light of the crisis facing domestic finances. This choice was clearly not taken with enthusiasm within HMG, and the enormous number of former UK political leaders and respected international figures voicing their objection provided the anticipated sting in the tail. Moreover, the discussion in its wake has once again shone light on the sensitivity of the UK’s political debate around foreign aid – and also the misconceptions surrounding public opinion regarding this issue.

Here, we present five key findings from the BFPG’s ongoing research into public opinion on aid and international development:

  1. Public support for aid stands on solid ground

The first thing to note is that public support for foreign aid and development spending is built on stronger foundations that may be visible from the media coverage around this issue. The proportion of Britons who do not support the UK’s foreign aid spending at all is not insignificant, but at 17%, is a clear minority of the population as a whole. The impression of a nation divided down the middle is evidently false. It may be more helpful, therefore, to regard the often-hysterical media coverage of foreign aid as challenging around the margins, rather than fundamentally questioning the value of aid and development spending altogether. In this respect, there is a reasonable basis from which the Government and the aid sector alike should assume a more confident position, avoiding falling into the trap of assuming a defensive position, believing the future of the UK’s leading donor status is existentially under threat – when communications investments would be better directed towards telling the positive stories.

  1. Foreign aid attitudes are highly individualised

Attitudes to aid and development spending are highly personalised, and reflect a range of individual preferences, priorities, lived experiences and social circumstances. It is therefore crucial to appreciate that different issues, programmes, regions and types of investments will be received and viewed differently on an individual level. As such, we should assume that aid and development spending is not seen as one single policy issue, but rather a suite of different issues. Moreover, that there will sometimes be contradictions in citizens’ preferences, because, although we know that the UK’s status as a generous nation is incredibly important to Britons’ sense of national identity and pride, there will often be a range of different competing emotions and instincts with greater salience in play, when their perceptions are ultimately being formed.

  1. Economic growth promotion provokes domestic and international competition

An example of this complex ecosystem of public opinion is found in the question of investments to support economic growth in developing nations. The BFPG’s research find that this is the epicentre at which individual circumstances begin to become critically important in shaping attitudes, with Britons from lower socio-economic grades and living in less prosperous areas, much more likely to question this kind of spending – undoubtedly, because they consider their own standing within British society, and perceive that structural economic inequalities persist here. This is the moment at which the zero-sum game of foreign aid coming at the cost of domestic investment becomes an important frame. Equally, however, it is a mistake to consider this as something that applies to aid and development investments across the board.

  1. The pandemic has also strengthened the zero-sum narrative around aid

The activation of the zero-sum frame around economic insecurity is also why we can see such a large groundswell of support for the UK reducing or ceasing its aid and development spending during the pandemic. Our survey finds that overall, 72% of Britons support reducing or stopping the UK’s foreign aid spending during the pandemic, while 28% believe it should be maintained or increased. There is some disagreement about the tests at which the aid provision should be levelled back up, but the narrative of it being contingent on the UK’s own economic recovery appears to be especially important.

  1. Britons’ rationales for supporting foreign aid are heterogeneous

Finally, it is important to note that the motivations behind Britons’ support for foreign aid vary wildly. Many Britons are motivated by a moral argument, others by a historical argument, and others are driven by strategic and security impulses. One the one hand, this can be regarded as a strength: it certainly means that there is a degree of resilience to foreign aid support, which could withstand any particular scandal or frenzied scrutiny. Equally, it also means it is difficult for the Government to speak directly to the centre of the nation on foreign aid – whether that’s tugging at hearts or minds – as to do so risks failing to activate, or even repelling, certain groups.

The opportunity to develop a cohesive once-in-a-generation investment in educating and engaging the British people on foreign aid in the wake of the publication of the Integrated Review feels especially urgent, and the integration between the UK’s international development activities and our broader foreign policy provides the platform on which to begin to develop a more cohesive narrative – which could bring these otherwise disparate tribes together.

The BFPG’s 2021 Annual Public Opinion Survey on Foreign Policy and Global Britain, the largest study ever undertaken into public opinion about foreign policy in the UK, can be downloaded here. It contains extensive data regarding British attitudes towards foreign aid and international development.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.