In the UK, 1.7% of the current government budget is allocated to international development, 0.7% of the Gross National Income. Coupled with the fundraising activities of charities and NGOs, it accounts for billions of pounds in funding for projects around the world, helping to save lives, alleviate poverty, combat the effects of climate change and encourage sustainable economic development.

Development aid: how do you convince the public that progress is possible?

Trawling through the comments section of newspaper websites, and the transcripts of some political speeches, you may be forgiven for thinking that most people are averse to foreign aid. Though there are outpourings of support where disaster relief is concerned, the use of ‘taxpayer money’ on international development remains controversial. But is it really something that the majority would like to see reduced, or even eradicated?

The broader discourse around foreign aid has changed significantly since the turn of the Millennium, underpinned by seismic shifts in the global political and economic landscape and more recent challenges around corruption, and NGOs making headlines for the wrong reasons.

David Hudson, Professorial Research Fellow in Politics and Development at the University of Birmingham, explains that against this backdrop, the 2015 move to enshrine the spend of 0.7% of gross national income on international development in law was seen as something of a shock.

“In the build-up you would read articles in the more right-leaning press and wonder if the law would be passed. Increasing spend on aid was, and still is, seen as something of a political lightning rod. When you go through austerity and funding cuts at home you would perhaps expect some opposition. And yet it was passed, and millions of people will have benefitted as a result. What drove the policy makers to stand firm? Public support was stronger than they thought. And we had the data to prove it.”

It was a significant win for NGOs and advocates of increased spend on international development.

Keeping a finger on the pulse

The Department for International Development (DfID) had been tracking public opinion towards aid since 1999. But it took a worldwide push from the Gates Foundation to provide the funding and impetus to probe deeper into the numbers across the UK, France, Germany and the US. At the heart of this was the Aid Attitudes Tracker (AAT).

“Essentially, the Gates Foundation wanted the big donors, the economic powerhouses, to all commit to at least 0.7% of their GNI. Their belief was that public support would breed political support,” says Professor Hudson. “In order to drive public support though we needed to understand not just the size of support, and opposition, for increased aid spending. You had to know why people hold those beliefs, how they interact with aid on a personal level, and indeed how their attitude can change over time.”

Thus, the AAT was born. Between 2013 and 2018, the team surveyed 8,000 people across the UK, France, Germany and the US every six months. Participants were asked over 100 questions in each wave, and researchers conducted in-depth focus groups and side experiments to explore particular areas of interest.

The AAT was a research partnership between the Gates Foundation, YouGov and the research teams based at University of Texas at Dallas (Professors Harold Clarke and Marianne Stewart), University College London (Professor Jennifer Hudson and Dr Paolo Morini) and University of Birmingham.

The top-level numbers make for interesting reading. Support for aid in the UK has remained relatively stable despite the long shadow of austerity and criticism, from some parts, of the 2015 bill. In France, support has risen sharply. Germany has maintained a high level of support throughout. Even in the US, support has grown slightly, perhaps with proponents of foreign aid mobilised into action by a politically divisive presidency. 

“What we can see from these trends is that attitudes simply are not as elastic as we imagined,” explains Professor Hudson. “Concerted efforts to undermine support for aid have not moved the dial.”

“We see that same thing following specific incidents too. In the wake of a scandal like we saw in Haiti, or an influx of migrants as we saw in Germany, you may well see a spike in opposition to aid but support quickly reverts back to the norm.”

He adds, “It works the same in the other direction, too. The widely circulated photo of Alan Kurdi, the three year old Syrian boy who died and washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean, caused a marked shift in empathy. But by the next time we surveyed people, the overall support for aid reverted back to the norm.”

So if perception of aid is relatively unaffected by short-term shocks, what does sit behind public opinion? To answer that, the team adopted a new approach and embraced input from some of the key beneficiaries of such information.

The C-word

“The tracking of overall attitudes was incredibly valuable,” says Professor Hudson, “but what really helped us gain momentum was by working closer with the NGOs and charities who both lobby governments and seek out private donations. Our tracker evolved, and was very much co-designed. There were certain things we were looking at that simply were not of interest to NGOs. And, of course, there were certain issues that they really needed help unravelling.”

Insight from the AAT helped NGOs get to grips with one of the hottest topics in the field – corruption. The ‘C-word’ is the perennial elephant in the room. Those working in development have long been reluctant to engage with the public on the complexity of corruption in poor countries. In the absence of input from the NGOs, public perception shifted – and quickly.

 credit: Alamy

In 2008, when DfID asked whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement “Corruption in governments in poor countries makes it pointless donating money to help reduce poverty”, 48% of the population agreed. By 2010, 60% agreed and by 2014 the figure reached 67%.

“By its very nature, it is hard to know exactly how much corruption occurs,” adds Professor Hudson. “But people’s tolerance for corruption is really low. For most people it is not a development issue but a moral issue, it is right or wrong. So the idea that we might have to tolerate some leakage when working in tricky environments or that regular people have no choice but to pay small bribes in their everyday lives to get medicines or a business licence is a hard argument to make. That said, by neglecting the issue altogether, the discourse was mired in myths and inaccuracies.”

By coordinating their questions with the NGOs, and testing messages with focus groups, Professor Hudson and colleagues started to present an evidence base to help debunk the idea that conversations about corruption should be avoided. Slowly, but surely, the C-word is starting to be a little less taboo.

Every picture tells a story

In March 2017 nearly 23 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan were facing an escalating crisis of conflict, drought and starvation. In response, the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) launched its East Africa appeal. The appeal raised £12m in its first day.

In terms of raising money the DEC appeals were a brilliant success. But, even so, there was notable disquiet around the imagery used in the appeals. Humanitarian campaigns have long been criticised for the propensity for negative, degrading and disempowering imagery; seen to be appealing to a ‘politics of pity’.

Professor Hudson explains how this led to another experiment using the AAT respondents. “We wanted to explore whether exposure to negative imagery like this can undermine people’s sense of hope and progress. Not only in the short term, but could it actually depress people’s sense of being able to make a difference. Charities always have one eye on encouraging long-term engagement with donors, rather than relying on one-off donations in response to a particular campaign, so a sense of efficacy in improving lives is hugely important.”

Respondents were randomly assigned to one of four groups and assigned images used in actual DEC campaigns:

Group 1 were the control group, and saw no appeal at all.

Group 2 were shown the following appeal:

DEC campaign ad showing a young African boy holding up an emaciated calf. Text reads: 'Crops lost, cattle dying. Children will be next. Don't delay, donate.'

Group 3 were shown:

DEC campaign ad showing a malnourished African boy crying in his mother's arms. The text reads: '£25 could provide a month's supply of life-saving peanut paste to a malnourished child. Don't delay, donate.'

Group 4 were shown:

DEC campaign ad showing a young African child eating peanut paste from her father's finger. The text reads: 'Thank you! £30 million raised so far. Aid is getting through but so much more is still needed. Don't delay, donate.'

It is the appeal that third group saw, the malnourished child in distress, that represents a source of concern for many. The team found that those in this group were less likely to say that they would donate (22%), versus 28% and 30% for the ‘Thank you’ and ‘Children Next’ appeals respectively:

Graph showing how those exposed to the three different images responded with a donation.

Read the graph data

This group also scored significantly lower on the measure of believing that they could make a difference in reducing poverty in poor countries than those in other groups. Even those in the control group – who were not shown any of the DEC appeals – scored 11% higher than the group shown the malnourished child.

Why does that matter? Quite simply, a sense of efficacy drives people’s behaviour and makes them more likely to engage with global development in the long term (e.g. buying fair trade goods, signing a petition or writing to their MP). And indeed, if perception of aid is relatively unaffected by short-term shocks, it begs the question; what does sit behind public opinion?

For NGOs, it means that campaigns rooted in hope, rather than pity, can boost their chances of long-term engagement. However, it is not just about getting the right message, but also the right messenger.

“On the back of our experiment into imagery, we looked at the role of the messenger,” says Professor Hudson. “There are two key traits that people respond well to - warmth and competence. As such, volunteers and frontline staff were better received as messengers than campaigns centred around celebrities.”

“Perhaps it is not all that surprising, when you consider the ongoing shift away from the template used by the likes of Live Aid and Comic Relief in the latter part of the twentieth century. Though the finding is heavily caveated, celebrities can still be helpful in getting initial attention for a cause, it shows us that campaigns need to understand the nuanced nature of their audience. In general they want positive messages delivered by practitioners rather than a ‘white saviour’ trope.”

Selling the ‘win-win’

Where NGOs have benefitted from AAT insight into the right messaging, policy makers have been equally keen to gauge public sentiment.

Since 2010, the UK Government has repeatedly called for the balance of aid spending to tip in favour of programmes that are in lock-step with national interest. In early 2018, the then International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt echoed those calls to increasingly link aid to promoting trade deals, jobs and foreign policy priorities, but started to stress the benefits of ‘win-win’ projects that were rooted in mutual benefit. This was far from a coincidence.

“We wanted to see if the British public favoured giving aid based primarily in support of national interests,” says Professor Hudson. “So, we surveyed people about the purpose of aid and asked them to place themselves on a sliding scale between the needs of others and national, strategic interests. Regardless of their political persuasion, people generally placed themselves towards being supportive of the needs of others. Where it got really interesting is when we gave respondents a menu of the reasons to support aid.”

Respondents could choose between; secure better trade deals, reduce migration, benefit UK businesses and create jobs at home, fight terrorism and reduce conflict, giving aid is morally right, good to help those who need it most, fight global diseases like Ebola and Zika, government should not give overseas aid, and ‘Don’t know’.

In fact, the team found that only 10% of the public chose a response from said menu where aid should be tipped in favour of UK interests (Figure 3). 24% favoured giving aid based on UK interests and others’ needs equally, and 32% preferred to give UK aid primarily to help people in poor countries who need it the most. Even considering those respondents who thought the UK should not give aid at all (17%) or ‘Don’t know’ (18%) – the British public displayed a clear order of preferences – give aid based on the needs of people in poor countries; give aid equally and give aid to promote interests at home.

When respondents were invited to select up to three of reasons for giving aid (Figure 4), mutual interests became the preferred choices. 35% of respondents supported aid to help flight global diseases like Ebola and Zika, and 29% of respondents wanted aid to help fight terrorism and reduce conflict. This was followed by giving aid based on need. Giving aid in the national interest, the focus of the 2015 policy paper that cemented the Conservative government approach, again garnered the least public support.

Professor Hudson adds, “The responses we saw were clear, people did not want aid to be solely in our interest. That insight was fed into DfID and the language of ‘win-win’ came to the fore.”

Respondents were asked which – if any – of the statements best describes why they personally felt the UK Government should give overseas aid. Respondents also had the option of saying the government should not give overseas aid:

Graph showing statements that best describe why the UK Government should give overseas aid (Figure 3)

Read Figure 3 graph data

Respondents were given the same question, but asked to choose up to three responses that best describes why the UK Government should give overseas aid (if at all):

Statements that best describe why the UK Government should give overseas aid (Figure 4)

Read Figure 4 graph data

A new name, a new approach

The project has undergone further development in the last year, with a notable new name. The Gates Foundation extended the funding for a further five years but no longer as the Aid Attitude Tracker, but the Development Engagement Lab.

Professor Hudson believes that the change reflects that the project has always been about more than aid, attitudes and, indeed, tracking. “We wanted to reduce the tracking element now that we have been able to show how aid is perceived across the four participating countries. Now it is about how we use that insight. What happens if we pull certain levers? That is at the heart of the more experimental lab approach, allowing us to delve deeper into certain questions.”

Though cautious to make predictions about how attitudes to aid might change in years to come, Professor Hudson notes that there will be serious debate about the discourse, narrative and presentation of what development assistance and international aid actually is.

“The NGOs are starting to acknowledge the issues and adapt. There is greater consideration at a governmental level of how aid fits into wider foreign policy – whether that is shifting programmes into trade departments or looking for those ‘win-win’ outcomes. The US, France, Germany, it’s similar in all of the countries we look at. But at a public level, perception is still driven by coverage of aid in the media.”

“That coverage is heavily skewed towards disasters, conflict and migration. Only one sixth (16.7%)  of all development funding goes as humanitarian assistance – which include disaster relief – and yet that is the primary thought that most people have. That will have an impact on their perceptions. To really alter the understanding of aid we need to penetrate that widely held belief that and find a way of sharing different messages about the more complex nature of international development, and the mutual benefits it brings.”

The insight provided by the team continues to provide NGOs and governments across the globe with the tools to explain what they do and why and to protect, and even increase, levels of public support for spend on international aid. In doing so, they can encourage the same commitment from policy makers. Getting it right, though, will require the right message and messenger.


The Development Engagement Lab (DEL) is a five-year study of public attitudes and engagement with global development in France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States and it builds on the Aid Attitudes Tracker (2013-2018). Working in collaboration with over 60 NGO and government partners across the four countries, DEL provides a rigorous research base to understand the drivers of engagement and inform development communications. DEL is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and led by Professor Jennifer Hudson (UCL) and Professor David Hudson (Birmingham).

Disasters Emergency Committee courtesy of the DEC.


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