‘Norway for now’ is potentially becoming the preferred fall back position for ‘Remainers’ refusing to accept defeat in the first referendum, yet fearing defeat in their campaign to secure a second. But Norway has very little in common with the UK’s political culture and our two countries motives for joining the EEA (or something like it) seem polls apart.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the contrast between the UK and Norway when it comes to public and political support for international development and overseas aid. While both countries are committed to meeting the UN target of 0.7%, that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Norway actually commits more like 1%, although while the UK remains the world’s fifth largest economy, ours is significantly more cash. But as a proportion of national income, Norway is the second most generous donor country in the world, after Sweden. And that generosity is popular with both the public and with politicians.
Polling going back decades shows that Norwegians have always supported this policy and the stable consensus among their political class stands in stark contrast to the fragile position of UK aid in British political discourse. There is no avowed hostile press in Norway, as there is in the UK, and their system of proportional representation means voter support is equally represented. In Britain, a relentlessly negative right of centre press, combined with the dominance of Conservative backbenchers in a hung Parliament, means that bad news on aid dominates our news feeds, while voters in small towns in England who voted ‘Leave’ have a disproportionate prominence in our present political debate. To make maters worse, the UK government’s promotion of aid ‘in the national interest’ is losing traditional supporters, rather than winning new ones.
While there is perhaps no majority in this Parliament for any kind of Brexit other than Norway-Plus, there is certainly no majority in this Parliament for repealing the UK’s commitment to 0.7%. And yet, support for UK aid is seen as part of a wider political agenda for what Brits often call ‘progressive’ politics. While Norway joined the EEA in a compromise between greater market access in return for less ‘control’ (and the resulting greater sovereignty) the UK’s motivations for seeking this route out of our Brexit stalemate seem more cynically pragmatic. Although Norway has access to an ‘emergency break’ on immigration, they have never pulled the lever and their political discourse has never seen them get remotely close to doing so.
Yet from this position, elements of Norway’s international development movement has been critical of UK NGOs for the way they communicate with the public, the way they portray poor people in the developing world and the way some fundraise from Brits to help others beyond their borders. What started as a hilarious spoof video became an annual awards scheme to try to humiliate NGOs to do better. Initially, it worked but eventually the organisers ran out of nominations. Last year, the final year before the Rusty Radiator Award was abolished, Comic Relief were targeted for an appeal film featuring pop star Ed Sheeran. At the time, I wrote a blog defending the video and next week I am going to Norway to defend it in person, at a conference of Norwegian civil society activists and development practitioners.
My main message to them is that if ‘Norway for now’ was on the ballot paper in any UK election or referendum, I’d be the first to vote for the kind of political culture and civil society space that they enjoy! I’m jealous of their proportional representation and their history of enlightened and pragmatic social democratic, consensus politics. Instead, I have to make the case for aid in a country that can’t even decide how it wants to leave the European Union, and where the Parliamentary arithmetic disproportionately strengthens the voice of politicians representing people for whom international development is an entirely foreign concept.
While only 76% of Brits actually own a passport, fewer than 25% of those that use it do so visiting poor countries outside of Europe. For these ordinary inhabitants of small towns in England, the development sector is talking about people they will never meet, in countries they will never ever go to. The challenge is to speak to them about international development in a language they understand, something that NGOs have struggled with.
One thing is for sure, what works in Oslo in Norway will almost certainly fail in Outwood in Yorkshire. And yet, hardened Brexiteer backbench MP Andrea Jenkyns is among those unlikely suspects who has recently spoken up in support of the impact of aid. And initiatives like LeedsCounts are giving supporters of aid the encouragement to speak to their friends and neighbours about why they care about poverty beyond our boarders.
Only by connecting with the public where they are on this issue, does the development sector have a chance to persuade sceptics to think again. Rather than talking to them in the tone of voice that NGOs and development academics feel comfortable with, we must grasp the nettle, listen to their objections and find a more relatable and empathetic message. That is the only way we will have any hope of keeping UK aid policy anything like ‘Norway for now’.