21/12/2012 11:34 GMT | Updated 20/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Making the Case For Aid

If politicians are looking for where they can do the most real good for the least cost in cash and political capital, foreign aid should be at the top of their list.

The next few months are crucial for the long-term future of international development policy and foreign aid. The Millennium Development Goals come to an end in 2015, and the planning for what comes next is already well underway.

But these discussions are happening in a very different context to when MDGs were first set up, with nearly all Western governments' budgets now under unprecedented pressure, and where we're facing an austerity spiral in Europe and a 'fiscal cliff' in US. The accelerating pace of change in the developing world since 2000 also presents challenges: it is a more complex picture of who needs support now, and how that might change again by the 2020s.

Many involved in international development are getting worried about where we're going to end up. Bill Gates recently highlighted how frustrated he is with what he sees as increasing opposition to foreign aid in many rich countries, driven by a "growing legion of critics."

Public opinion is therefore vital - and our new poll in 24 countries illustrates the real challenges facing those making the case for aid.

First of all, there is a clear information gap - the public across nearly all countries are just not aware of what the aid spending by their own country involves or achieves. Three quarters say they know nothing or not very much, and only 4% say they know a lot.

It's not surprising then that there is a particular emphasis in the global development community on communicating more effectively about outcomes. But polling data from a range of studies illustrates how incredibly difficult it will be to shift opinion. Mr Gates' suggestion that we need to "tell the truth" about aid is of course right - but we also need to have realistic expectations about how informed we can make the public.

That's not to say that information isn't important, or to ignore the excellent work being done to encourage transparency. This includes the International Aid Transparency Initiative launched in Accra in 2008, and indices that monitor progress on transparency, such as Publish What You Fund's Aid Transparency Index.

This has many benefits in holding those who receive aid to account - but when we plot public awareness from our survey against this Index, there is just about no relationship. For example, the Department for International Development, which is the main aid-giving agency in Britain, scores highest out of all 72 agencies included - but there are distinctly average levels of awareness and support among the public in Britain. Organisations in Brazil and Italy achieve very low transparency scores, but have almost identical awareness among the public to that seen in Britain.

And it's easy to understand why. The views of the vast majority, who don't seek out detailed information, are formed by very partial and politicised media discussions. The rhetoric of the apparent absurdity of giving aid to a country with a space programme sticks with people.

Communicating on aid presents a treacherous challenge, combining legitimate concerns around waste and corruption with spectacular misconceptions of the scale of the funding involved, on a subject that most people in developed countries have little time to consider and virtually zero direct contact with.

Our latest survey shows that perceptions of waste are indeed widespread. Across the 24 countries, 51% agree their country's aid spending is wasted, while 37% disagree. But it's important to put this in context with other types of spending - we need to remember that large parts of the public tend to think most state spending of all types is wasted. So when we asked about perceptions of defence spending, half say this is also wasted. And even with domestic spending on key policy areas like education, 41% across the countries think that is wasted too.

People also do hugely overestimate how much is actually spent on aid by their country. For example, a number of surveys of citizens in the US have shown they think they spend 20%+ of their budget on aid, when the truth is much closer to 1%.

Clearly these misconceptions are important - but we shouldn't jump to the conclusion that changing them will increase support. In other studies, where people are then told how much aid spending actually accounts for, and asked about their support, there are similar levels of scepticism to those seen in other polls. This overestimation probably reveals more about the public's (understandable) difficulty in comprehending these huge and abstract numbers than anything else.

So where does this leave the case for aid spending? On one level Bill Gates is right, and we need to do more to make the case for international aid's huge achievements. Key points, such as development aid lifting one billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990, need to be made clearly and consistently. As has been pointed out in other studies, we need to appeal to the emotional and transformational potential of aid.

We have also seen an increasing focus on 'enlightened self-interest' in communications about aid, where more is being said in individual countries about how domestic citizens benefit in direct and indirect ways. This includes the greater emphasis on moving from 'aid to trade' with fast-developing countries, discussions of food security and, of course, counter-terrorism.

In that vein, other survey evidence shows that one of most widely accepted benefits of aid spending is that it increases a country's influence, and that we may benefit from support from countries we help in the future: it seems that the public do believe in the 'soft power' potential of aid.

But in the end, it's important to not expect public opinion to shift too much, or we're bound to be disappointed. It is too complex and peripheral an issue in the developed world.

Instead politicians need to display courage and stick to achieving what the public would want if they really did consider the issues. The confusion and ambivalence on aid should not be mistaken for a lack of compassion: Eurobarometer surveys show that across Europe, 85% think it is important to help people in developing countries.

And if that isn't enough, political leaders can at least comfort themselves that their decisions on aid really don't affect electoral outcomes. It isn't a key issue deciding votes, as the almost complete absence from the campaigns in most of big elections this year indicates. So if politicians are looking for where they can do the most real good for the least cost in cash and political capital, foreign aid should be at the top of their list.