UK Public Perceptions of Aid

15 February 2010

15 February 2010

On Tuesday 9 February IDS co-hosted an event with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Debt, Aid and Trade. The topic addressed was that of 'Making the Case for Aid The Challenge of UK Public Perceptions'. This drew on some recent work by IDS with the University of Sussex Mass Observation Archive and the Wellcome Trust, to investigate public attitudes towards aid and development in the UK.

Spencer Henson spoke first, and began by pointing out that the UK is currently in an interesting situation: a strong political consensus amongst all three main parties in favour of increased aid spending, coupled with the perception of decreasing public support. DFID is a leader among donor agencies in understanding public attitudes, yet our understanding is still partial - partly due to a lack of interest from the academic community. This is beginning to change, but we are still reliant on public attitude tracking and lack the research that would help us interpret this data.

As part of the research carried out by IDS, people were asked how much they knew about development. Most people claimed to know very little, yet often gave elaborate accounts of poverty in developing countries, for instance bad governance and giving the example of Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Most people get their information from the media; despite their scepticism of its reporting, however, most people do not look for information elsewhere, but absorb what they have seen or read, forgetting their distrust of its source.

Henson concluded that we need more research, to allow us to interpret the data we have and understand causality better. We have problems with communication as we do not understand the people we are trying to communicate with, he said; we would be better off to tackle the issue of failure head on, acknowledging it and explaining it, and contrast to examples of aid working well in other contexts.

Comic Relief 

The next two speakers were Sarah Woods and Cathie Mahoney, Head of Marketing and Head of Public Education at Comic Relief. The public education part of their work is a new effort to communicate development issues beyond the fundraising initiatives Red Nose Day and Sport Relief. Comic Relief needs to communicate complex issues in a simple way that inspires people to donate; this also means not overwhelming them with the scale of the problem, but making them feel that they can do something to help - for instance, rather than talking about health systems lacking in Africa, the public are encouraged to spend £5 to buy a bed net. Red Nose Day has been estimated to reach 99% of the UK’s population in some way; while this engagement does not educate people about development in a significant way, the organisation hopes that it provides fertile ground for other organisations to pick up where they have begun.

Sarah Woods went on to discuss some of the ways in which Comic Relief is trying to better understand its audiences. They have done some work in diving the public into different categories, drawing correlations between people’s socioeconomic status, and the type of messages that are likely to appeal to them and encourage them to donate. Some groups, for example respond best to personal stories, whereas others want to see lots of facts and statistics to back up what they are being told.

DFID opinion

The final speaker on the panel was Paul Mylrea, Director of Communications at the Department for International Development (DFID). He explained that DFID has also attempted to segment its audience, but has done so according to their level of support for development appending, starting with 'Active Enthusiasts' and down to ‘Distracted Individuals’. DFID focuses their communication efforts on the first two groups rather than trying to convince sceptics. Mylrea explained that DFID is also actively exploring how these attitudes are formed, and how people might be moved from one group to another. A recent initiative of the department’s is the rebranding of British international aid spending as 'UKAid' – something more meaningful to most people than the 'DFID' acronym. The idea is to label government activity, and thereby show that the 0.7% of GDP to be spent as aid can make a real difference. The challenge is to remain accountable to the British public at a time when polls suggest a downturn in support and a shift from international to domestic concerns.