James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Increasing public support for aid spending.
As I’ve written before, the public are sceptical about the Government’s aid spending target. There is evidence to suggest many people think that we spend more than we do, but public opinion is complex, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that the public would therefore support higher spending if they only understood we don’t spend that much. Basically, the public position, which is stuck for the foreseeable future, is that we spend too much on foreign aid. This won’t change until the context changes for the public.
That contextual change could come in three ways. Firstly, the economy could pick up, wages could rise, and people might feel that spending on foreign aid projects could be justified more easily. Secondly, the Government could make it clearer that spending was going to be focused on countries where corruption could be contained and on countries that did not have a very large GDP (the corruption point is clearly difficult, but this is a point about public opinion, not what’s “right”).
The third thing that could lead to a contextual change is giving the public more of a say in what the money is spent on.
I’m not a fan of referendums because of the excessively simplistic binary choices they force. I just wish the parties listened more to the public on key issues on a permanent basis. I’m not suggesting therefore that the Department for International Development hold big public votes on projects.
But given the vast state resources that pour through the various international development charities, it would be better if a collection of them found a way of ringfencing a small amount of money – and the public could influence how it was spent.
Would it risk turning policy on a serious area into a circus? That’s undoubtedly a risk. Having rich people choosing which poor people to help could make for an unpleasant spectacle. For this reason, people would be able to vote for what was effectively a “top-up” to projects that were already being funded.
At the moment, we’re in a position where the development charities are effectively all competing for money using aggressively emotional campaigning designed to secure public support. That’s perfectly reasonable and the charities’ motives are virtuous.
Rather than a circus, what we might get with a more formal process is a way of explaining important issues in a more detailed and sober way. With a dedicated website, projects could be explained seriously, with crucial background context and metrics of success provided to those that wanted to track progress.
Crucially, by engaging people in the aid debate and getting them to think about projects in more detail, they would be making some form of investment – emotionally at least – in our approach to development.
I don’t see a better way of raising public support for the aid budget.