• Challenging public perceptions of overseas aid: new report

Challenging public perceptions of overseas aid: new report

27 July 2015

2015 is a pivotal year in global development.  Its sees the end of fifteen years of efforts to achieve the Millenium Development Goals, and to agree their successor Sustainable Development Goals.  It sees a major conference on climate change in Paris, aiming to reach a new international agreement on the climate. And we have already had the Addis Abbaba conference on Financing for Development.  All important issues in the development world.

But quite possibly not so important to the general public. What do all these high-level discussions mean to them? How aware are they of these events, let alone the objectives they hope to achieve?  And, given these days of austerity, might some of them be more interested in government support impacting their lives, rather than on people in far off lands? 

The European Commission designated 2015 as the European Year of Development.  Across the European Union and throughout the year, there are activities, events and information campaigns that aim to inform EU citizens about development spending and objectives, about the mutual benefits of development cooperation and to foster a sense of joint responsibility and solidarity. 

These can be difficult messages in the best of times.  As mentioned, austerity cuts across the EU mean that more people believe that charity begins at home, and are raising questions about governments ring-fencing their official development assistance (ODA).  Sometimes the argument is based on ignorance about just how little governments do spend on ODA, compared to domestic health services or pensions etc.  But the argument can seem to be a valid one when it is difficult to explain why development takes time, and sometimes doesn’t go to plan, in conflict-affected or 'fragile state' countries, like Afghanistan.   

Public support is important.  Policy-maker support equally so.  How can we communicate these development challenges, and maintain or generate their support for overseas development? This was the subject of BAAG’s latest round table.  As part of our EC-funded Media4Development programme, our event posed questions about what makes development complicated, and sometimes unsuccessful, in countries like Afghanistan, and how can we effectively communicate this to the public.  A framework already exists to support more effective development, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.  This is being implemented in Afghanistan.  Our round table asked if this is actually working in Afghanistan, and if it provides useful perspectives for communicating the challenges to the public.  

Our roundtable, generously hosted by Chatham House in central London, brought together 24 policy makers, development practitioners, academics and researchers. Most have significant experience in Afghanistan, one was an Afghan development and private sector expert who flew in for the event.  The points raised and discussed were wide ranging.  The experiences shaping opinions and recommendations were not always positive. But the outcomes are interesting, and the recommendations clear: public messaging about development cooperation and spend must be more honest and transparent, and the responsibility for this lies with donors, NGOs and the media alike. 

You can read the full report of our event here.  It makes a useful companion to our 2014 report on Afghanistan in the British print media.  Copies of the roundtable report are being sent to policy-makers in the British government and European Commission, and BAAG will explore opportunities to continue these conversations.