The Blog

International Aid - It's the Wrong Frame

The recent furore over the British international aid budget exposes a failure by the government and aid giving agencies to communicate the good work that they undertake in the developing world.

The recent furore over the British international aid budget exposes a failure by the government and aid giving agencies to communicate the good work that they undertake in the developing world.

According to a recent ITV ComRes poll, seven in ten people think Britain spends too much on international aid. Almost two thirds - 64 per cent - said Britain should stop sending international aid to India. Only 13 per cent backed continuing international aid, while 23 per cent said they did not know. This follows Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, negotiating with the Department for International Development to try and divert some aid spending into the Ministry of Defence budget.

Tony Blair recently launched a fierce defence of the UK's international aid budget and backed David Cameron' s insistence of ring fencing international aid in the Government's funding commitments, arguing in the Observer on the 3rd of March, that it was a "great credit to the British people".

Defenders of international aid too often rattle off statistics to justify its success. For example, ONE Campaign, a grassroots campaign of more than three million people committed to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases, estimates that between 2012 and 2015, based on existing bilateral and multilateral spending plans, the UK will achieve a minimum of the following results: provide school places for 15.9 million children, vaccinate more than 80 million children against life-threatening diseases, save at least 1.4 million lives, and help create more than 19.3 employment opportunities by fostering economic growth.

Defenders of international aid need to embrace the power of storytelling. "Stories are the creative conversion of life itself to a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience," says screenwriting guru Robert McKee. According to film producer, Peter Guber, author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story: "Telling purposeful stories is certainly the most efficient means of persuasion in everyday life"

Harnessing the power of stories is something that the international aid sector has much to learn from the private sector. For example, the Google advert, "Parisian Love", played during the 2010 Super Bowl won over the audience with the way it tells a love story through a man's Google searches. The ad works brilliantly because it is true to the Google experience while employing storytelling to make it emotionally captivating.

President Obama was also deploying the power of stories when he announced the most sweeping gun control proposals in two decades. President Obama unveiled the proposals at the White House in January, flanked by children who wrote him letters after the December 2012 Newtown shooting, which left 20 children and six teachers dead. He also read out extracts from these letters, framing gun-control as something America urgently need to address for the sake of its children.

While working for the Cambodian Center of Human Rights, I saw at first hand the powerful stories that international aid creates, via empowering communities, whose land was being taken from them with little or no compensation. I saw the brave community members defending their constitutional rights despite widespread intimidation from officials. They were refused food aid by local authorities or threatened by police brandishing AK-47s bursting in to stop them being informed on how to avail themselves of their legal rights.

International aid transforms people's lives. It means that starving children get food, victims of violent regimes find safety, and people are lifted from poverty and empowered to become consumers. Stories speak louder than statistics, and it is the individual stories of these challenges that needs' to be communicated in order to justify international aid.

In a Britain reeling from recession, government cuts and the recent revelations of alleged child sexual abuse, we need to embrace what we have to be proud of: the contribution our international aid gives to the developing world. We need people from the international aid sector to tell us that there it is a lot more that we as a nation can be proud of besides the Queen and the Olympics. To make this point, international aid organisations must partner with proven communicators.