Peter Goldstein writes about the findings of a new survey of UK citizens’ attitudes to overseas aid and international development.
In contentious budgetary times, overseas development assistance becomes a hot-button issue. To help frame the debate, timely new analysis from InterMedia, the global research and consulting group, provides a glimpse of British public attitudes about foreign aid.
The results come from a study called Building Support for International Development, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and focused on how support for bilateral aid can be shored up most effectively.
Research was conducted among urban citizens, “influentials” (aka opinion leaders) and government officials in the UK, France, Germany, the US and emerging aid donor China.
So what did the UK data show?
• Fully half of the UK public are “interested citizens”, meaning that in a survey they expressed interest in global development issues and had also conducted some sort of supportive social action (such as donating money to a cause) in the past six months.
The UK percentage was higher than that of the other four countries studied (the US was the lowest at 31%).
• Perceptions of waste or corruption in bilateral aid spending are widespread among citizens. But these concerns generally do not deter people from supporting development causes directly (notably, through donations).
The share of interested citizens who said they have donated money to support an international development cause ranges from a low of 36% in France to a high of 71% in both the UK and Germany. That said, the share of people who have conducted other actions – from volunteering to attending an event to sharing information online – is generally far lower.
• There is also underlying support for the principle of bilateral aid, despite scepticism about effectiveness in recent years.
For example, when UK interested citizens were asked “how much is your government doing to improve economic and social conditions in developing countries”, only 16% replied “too much”; fully 50% said “just the right amount”; and 27% said “too little” (the remainder were “don’t know”).
The study also asked people whom they consider to be the most effective “champions” for international development – in other words, public figures who would be preferred boosters for development causes. And who was chosen? It’s good or bad depending on one’s political stance.
Prime minister David Cameron grabbed the top spot (and would he be pleased?). He was followed in order by US President Barack Obama, musician/activist Bob Geldof, foreign secretary William Hague and Nelson Mandela.
It isn’t clear how much can be read into these choices, given citizens in all the countries studied tended to select prominent national politicians when asked about effective development champions.
By comparison, the UK influentials who were interviewed in the study steered well clear of the national political class. Their top choices (in descending order) were: billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, Geldof, Bono, Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, and Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.
And perhaps most surprising were the choices of UK government decision makers, who included Clare Short, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in the top five (along with Bono and Geldof). It may suggest some nonpartisan sentiment among the current rank of bureaucrats.