Kids going to school near Bole

Does the public care about development?

Development advocates have to make the case for aid and development policy. They are right to say that development is in the national interest of the donor, but it may be a mistake to put this at the centre of the argument. Most people don’t need to be convinced that development is desirable; they need to be convinced that aid works.

Development is in our national interest

It is increasingly the conventional wisdom that it is in the national interest of industrialised countries to promote development in the rest of the world. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a speech saying so a year ago at the Center for Global Development:

… development was once the province of humanitarians, charities, and governments looking to gain allies in global struggles. Today it is a strategic, economic, and moral imperative – as central to advancing American interests and solving global problems as diplomacy and defense.

The UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, also argues that development is a key part of Britain’s strategic and security interests (for example, here and here).

We’ve come a long way over the last twenty years. In January 1991 my father, then a British High Commissioner, sent a despatch to the then Foreign Secretary in London to mark the end of his last post in Africa, arguing that it was in the UK’s national interest to pay more attention to Africa’s development.  His despatch said:

There is an overwhelming case on financial grounds alone for acting sooner rather than later, collectively, to provide the resources required for removing most of the debt burden from African countries (provided that they are committed to active economic reform), for arresting environmental degradation, and for restoring the physical and human infrastructure sufficiently to permit diversification of economic effort and its re-direction into areas that will eventually become self-financing – as well, incidentally, as making a more positive contribution to world economic activity.

At that time, the foreign policy establishment was very suspicious of any argument based on ethical or moral imperatives: it believed that foreign policy should be based on narrowly-defined national interests.  In 1980 the Brandt Report had argued that it was in our “mutual interest” to pay attention to development and inequality, but in the decade that followed Britain’s aid programme, and our attention to developing countries, had declined.  Twenty years ago, when my father was making a case for paying more attention to development based on our national interest as well as our values and moral obligations, his view was regarded as so subversive that the foreign office limited the circulation of the despatch. Today it is received wisdom which is regularly the basis of speeches by the US Secretary of State and the British Foreign Secretary.

We should celebrate the fact that there is, belatedly, recognition among policymakers that promoting development is in our national interest, as well as being the right thing to do.  But I am concerned that we are letting the pendulum swing too far, by placing this argument at the centre of the public case for aid.  We should use every argument at our disposal for doing the right thing, of course; but if we focus too much on aid being in our national interest, we are danger of undermining the effectiveness of aid and of failing to address the real concerns of sceptical citizens.

The nature of public doubts about aid

If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “I don’t think we should spend money helping starving people because I don’t give a toss about them,” I wouldn’t have any nickels at all.

The foreign policy establishment may have been sceptical about focusing on the ethical dimension of foreign policy, but the public never was.  Neither the British nor the American people lack compassion for their fellow human beings.  My father’s prescient efforts to awaken policymakers’ interest in development were made several years after Live Aid, which had showed that the public needs no lessons in generosity.

I readily concede that the public is often sceptical about aid. I have witnessed focus group discussions which anybody who is interested in development would find alarming, anyway at first. In such a discussion, the person who says “charity begins at home” will initially get lots of support. But as the discussion goes deeper, it turns out that they are sceptical not because of any indifference to the plight of others, but because they are not convinced that aid works. In many such groups you’ll hear Bauer’s famous remark that aid is “poor people from rich countries giving money to rich people from poor countries.” Many people are worried that aid ends up in the Swiss bank accounts of despots and dictators, or of corrupt consulting and construction firms.  Yet when the same focus groups are given evidence of the benefits of particular aid programmes, their mood changes sharply, and they soon ask: “Why don’t we give more aid like that?”

The idea that “charity begins at home” clearly resonates with many people.  In part the phrase expresses the idea that we have stronger social ties and obligations to people who live in our neighbourhood than we do to people on the other side of the world.  But few people really believe, on reflection, that we should pay no heed to people dying of hunger or for lack of medical facilities just because they are far away.  Perhaps “charity begins at home” resonates for another reason: we can observe at first hand whether the effort we make to help our family and neighbours is actually working, whereas with foreign aid we can’t, and we have a sneaking suspicion that this means that it isn’t.

The most popular critique of aid in recent years, Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, does not challenge aid on the grounds that the plight of the poor is not our concern. It is a poorly argued book in many other respects, but it would be wrong to accuse Dr Moyo of callous indifference. Indeed, all the famous aid sceptics, from P. T. Bauer to Bill Easterly, explicitly accept development as the objective: they simply question whether foreign aid is a good way to achieve it.

The dangers of relying on national interest

So perhaps the public does not need to be persuaded that development matters, but needs instead to be convinced that aid makes a difference.  Even so, it seems reasonable to say that we should use every argument at our disposal for aid: we should appeal to the public’s self-interest as well as their moral values, and we should at the same time set out the evidence that aid works.

But there are two big risks to this approach which should lead us to think carefully about the balance of how we make the argument.

First, if we promote aid principally on the grounds that it supports our security and commercial interests, we should not be surprised when people expect that this is how aid should be used.

In the long term our national interest coincides with our moral urge to promote development and to reduce poverty.  But in the short term there is often a trade-off between development and poverty reduction on the one hand, and our commercial, security and strategic interests on the other.

During the Cold War a huge amount of aid was wasted currying favour with despots for geo-strategic reasons and accordingly propping up failing industries and businesses.  Even today, less than 40% of aid is spent in the poorest countries.  This makes a kind of sense if your aim is to increase your influence in emerging economies and in fragile states like Pakistan and Iraq.  There are many poor people in these countries, but all the evidence suggests that these are not the places in which aid is most needed and can do the most good.  A significant portion of aid (though none of the UK’s aid) is still tied to firms in donor nations. This makes sense if the aim is to support the donor’s commercial interests but not if the aim is to have the greatest possible impact on the reduction of poverty.  It is legitimate and proper for donors to want credit for their aid, to enhance both their international reputation and their image and influence in the recipient country. But this goal leads donors to give too much aid through bilateral aid programmes, on which their national flag can be stamped, and too little through more efficient multilateral institutions and other shared funds, resulting in unnecessary duplication, overheads and transaction costs.

We do not have institutions that can protect our long-term national interest in development and poverty reduction from the pressures to use aid to pursue these short-term strategic, security and commercial interests.  In a world of short time horizons, our immediate interests tend to prevail over our longer-term goals.  So the more we justify aid chiefly on the grounds of national interest, the greater the danger that our short-term national interest will dictate the way aid is used, with negative consequences for the effectiveness of aid and for our longer-term interest in poverty reduction.

If the public were unsure whether they cared enough about global development to give aid, then it might be worth deploying aid in ways which are most obviously in the national interest, even if that required sacrificing some of its effectiveness.  (For many years, the Danish government justified tying aid to Danish suppliers on precisely these grounds.)  But if the public is already convinced that development is important, and their doubt is primarily about whether aid is effective, then it makes no sense to use aid in less effective ways in an effort to win greater public approval.

The second reason why we should be cautious about focusing too much on our national interest when justifying aid is that we are in danger of setting ourselves up to fail.

Take an example which is, literally, close to home for me. School enrolment here in Ethiopia has risen from a quarter of all children fifteen years ago to more than four fifths of children today. About a third of Ethiopian children – 8 million boys and girls – are at school as a direct result of foreign aid.  My house in Addis Ababa is a few hundred metres from the local primary school, so I see boys and girls going past my window to school every day.

If the British public could see as I do how their aid money is being used, they would, like me, be encouraged and touched by the good that aid does.  This is a direct, demonstrable benefit of aid, and one which appeals to the British sense of justice and empathy for our fellow human beings.   It would soften the heart of the hardest sceptic.

Kids going to school near Bole
Kids going to school near my house in Addis Ababa. A third of Ethiopia's education system is financed by aid.

Why then is there such widespread doubt that aid works?  In part it is because people at home cannot look out of their window and see it working.  But it is also because we have made extravagant claims about what aid will do. Even if it is true that aid leads to faster economic development, and that it thereby reduces the risk of global health contagions, organised crime and drug smuggling, this would be impossible to demonstrate statistically.  (It would be like trying to show that the EU has prevented war in Western Europe since 1945: plausible, very probably true, but unprovable.)

People are right to be doubtful about the validity of some of the more grandiose claims for what aid can achieve.  Perhaps it seems too modest to say that we pay for millions of children to go to school, and for people to have access to clean water and basic health care. But this is a reality which we can prove beyond any doubt; and for most taxpayers it will seem well worth the modest amount of money we spend on it.  And it is probable, even if unprovable, that all this works in favour of our own long-term interests as well.

The public and the politicians who represent them will inevitably devote only a modest amount of time to thinking about development.  If we use up scarce bandwidth making an argument with which few disagree – that poverty matters – we waste the opportunity to make the argument of which they are yet to be convinced: that development policy and aid can and do make an important difference to the lives of the poor.

The aid that was used to prop up Mobutu in Zaire during the Cold War may have served a foreign policy interest, but it did little or nothing to reduce poverty and raise living standards in that country.   Money used today to buy food aid may be a convenient subsidy for American and European farmers but if we bought the food locally we could feed twice as many people with the same money and at the same time support the growth of sustainable agriculture in developing countries. The more we use aid to support our strategic and commercial interests, the less effective that aid is likely to be in the fight against global poverty, in which we have an important long-term interest.

It is in our national interest to see faster development and the end of global poverty, and we should not be shy about saying so.   But we should think twice before using this as the central plank of the case for more effective development policies and more aid.  People do not need to be persuaded to care about global poverty: they do need to be convinced that there is something we can do about it.  Just reminding them that it is in our national interest to promote development fundamentally misses the point.  The more we defend aid mainly on the basis that it is in our national interest, the more likely it is to be bent to our short-term commercial and strategic interests, the more ineffectively it will be used, the harder it will be to demonstrate its benefits, and the greater the justification for public scepticism.  Give the public some credit: they don’t need to be persuaded to care about poverty.  Aid does work:  and the first and most pressing task is to demonstrate to the public with persuasive evidence that this is so.

46 comments on “Does the public care about development?”

  1. You beat me in writing such a p;ost–excellent post anyway. Frankly, the doubts about development seem to lie more on the American side–based on my experience with even Democrats.

    1. @Dag – I agree. I also believe that aid works, at both the macro and the micro level. Though I’m more wary of the statistical evidence from cross country growth regressions. (This doesn’t mean I disbelieve them, just that I don’t think they constitute reliable evidence in either direction.)

      I think this is the case we have to make. It is much more important than telling people over and over that development is important.


  2. You’ve pointed out that very few people disagree with giving foreign aid, as long as they’re convinced that it works. However, I think it’s a different case if you give people an either/or choice about where to spend the money. The national budget is not a limitless pool of funds; putting more money to development means it’s not being spent on something else. If you were to question a group of citizens on whether they would rather spend the money on national health care or foreign aid, I’d be surprised if they chose foreign aid. People care about development, but they don’t prioritize it over national spending and self-interest – thus, the “development is in our national interest” argument.

    You quoted a few studies showing citizens care more about development than we gave credit for, but are there any studies showing they care about it MORE than other priorities and are willing to sacrifice national spending for foreign aid?

    I guess I’m a skeptic… damn. Anyway, excellent post, as usual!

  3. A very interesting article, and one that makes some strong points towards re-emphasising our targets when attempting to shift public perspective on aid. I would agree that the public in general are weary of the message of “look at the need” and very little airtime and publicity material is dedicated to showing impact.

    The prevailing opinion appears to be that images of poverty will drive donation and convince people to support action, but when this is followed by media attention of the inefficiency of an aid response, and the next time around the same images appear on screen, calling for more money, is it any surprise that the general public perceive aid to be ineffective?

    My only disagreement would be that I would have a few nickels in my pocket from where people have only been receptive to the national interests argument and not the moral imperative to act. Maybe I’m just associating with the wrong crowds? However as you point out, this can, and I believe, should continue to be a part of how we deliver arguments in defence of aid.

    In your focus group experiences, what material was used to help turn the conversation round? What did so most effectively?

    Also @Erin Antcliffe the only recent thing (which I’m sure you have seen) was this survey: that highlighted the disparity between perceptions of the percentage of the US budget dedicated towards ODA, hinting that, although through a very informal survey, the public feel foreign aid should have a priority.

    Anyway that’s enough from me, excellent article, keep them coming.

  4. I haven’t sat in the focus groups that you have Owen, but I’ve certainly over-heard (and sometimes intervened) in conversations where people have been saying that – as Erin points out – they would rather see UK taxes spent on tackling social problems in the UK than in Africa.

    I’m sure you mean that there might be a peculiarly British sense of empathy and justice [not sure whether I agree with that], and that non-Brits have their own sense of those universal values and traits/skills of justice and empathy, rather than that those are peculiarly British things?! Your phrasing could be misunderstood perhaps?

    1. @Alan

      I agree that people sometimes say they would rather see UK taxes spent on tackling social problems in the UK than in Africa. When you have been part of those conversations, have you been able to establish whether that is because they are not bothered about social problems in Africa, or whether it is because they are not confident that money spent on social problems in Africa will make a difference? I can only report my own experience, which is that when you unpack this, the reason that people take this view is not that they don’t care about problems in Africa, but that they doubt that there is anything they can usefully do about it. Is that consistent with what you find?

      You are right: I don’t mean to imply that other nationalities don’t have just as strong (or stronger) traits of empathy and justice. I really mean that the British public care about these things, even if the foreign policy establishment has not always put it first.


  5. @Andy yes I’ve seen that study, SUPER interesting! But still doesn’t answer the question of how high on the priority list people would place foreign aid. Would be interesting to have a series of questions on spending, like “health or foreign aid?” “roads or foreign aid?” I wonder what you’d have to compare against for people to choose foreign aid… or maybe that’s too simplistic, and you’d rather have to get people to rank a list, or divide 100 points among budget areas (they started approaching this in the study you linked)… yeah I have no idea how to conduct a study like that, but I’d be interested in the results.

  6. @ Owen

    I don’t know what the numbers are – didn’t Action Aid do some good work on this a couple of years ago? – but I think it would be a mistake to discount the fact that a significant number of people would, even if money were equally effective in solving problems in the UK and Africa, opt to spend in the UK.

    That’s what my experience suggests. Perhaps my friends are particularly parochial 😉

    At that point, in those discussions, I fall back on the fact that £1 spent in Africa goes (might go) a lot further than £1 spent in the UK.

    Actually, here’s the Action Aid study

    pre-recession, but interesting all the same.

  7. Owen,

    Yet another thoughtful analysis. There’s not question that poverty and lack of development creates conditions for instability. Missle defence and body scanning likely has a higher cost per unit of security than aid effectiveness.

    After reading your post and a recent one by The Daily Telegraph on Wikileaks and corruption in Africa, I realized that the media might be the main perpetrator of the myth of total aid ineffectiveness. For example, a Google News search on “aid effectiveness” resulted in 42 stories. “Corruption” and “Africa” resulted in 4,061.

    Social media from practitioners that disintermediates traditional media might be more effective in advancing our knowledge of what works in development.

  8. Sure, aid works but maybe not as well as its advocates claim – and perhaps that includes youself Owen. For example enrolment, rates for kids in Ethiopia have surged in the last 15 years or so, as the view from your window confirms; but how many of the kids that eventually graduate will go on to ‘real’ jobs, rather than the sort of junk jobs that are provided by the government for Ethiopian university gradutes? Any idea?

    1. @Josephine – I don’t think you can fairly accuse me of over-claiming the benefits of aid (or if you do make such an accusation, I should like chapter and verse). If you look at my previous writing (such as this), I think you’ll find my view is pretty balanced.

      My claim about primary school enrollment in Ethiopia was just that: a celebration of that fact that many more children, especially girls, will have the chance to go to school today. I didn’t make any claims about what jobs they will go on to, though obviously I wish them well. Does sending kids to school solve everything? No. Is it nonetheless a good idea? Yes. And one that I’m happy to support with aid.


  9. Interesting point! Aid works but how and where( in what conditions) should also be an issue to be discussed. I think that the debate or the point should not only be on weather aid works or not and single out one or two cases and tell the success stories where most of the time doesn’t really represent the whole rather it should be on:- how can we make the best out of the aid given to Africa, how can we make sure that it is delivers to the poorest of the poor, how can we make sure that it doesn’t really aggravate the problem, how can we make sure that it is not supporting governments to oppress oppositions,how can we make aid more transparent, and above all how can we pave the way for Africa to be out of this trap and some other points should be on the agenda. Africa have been dependent on aid for long and we should really think of the way out of this “trap”. It is clear to me that aid is important but we also have to be careful about it as we have been dealing with it for the past 60 years and still we are dependent on aid. I was so disturbed when i read of this news yesterday….

    1. @Sol – I think you must be new around here. I agree with you about the importance of the questions you pose – which is why those are among the questions that we talk about quite a bit here on this blog.

  10. Owen, great analysis. I would argue, though, that – at least in the U.S.’s case – the linking of development with national interests is done not only to convince the public of the value of aid, but also to convince multilateralism-averse, conservative policymakers and those holding the foreign aid budget’s purse strings to continue supporting and funding development. And, in the U.S.’s case, the two groups happen to converge in Congress’s lower house.

    Amid rising threats from House Republicans to slash the international affairs budget, we’ve seen a recent ramping up of this development-is-in-our-national-interest rhetoric: from statements by Defence Secretary Robert Gates and U.S.A.I.D. administrator Rajiv Shah arguing development is essential to national security, to Congressmen on both sides of the aisle defending U.S. financial contributions to the U.N. as crucial to advancing American interests.

    In 2009, the U.S. dispersed 28.8 billion dollars of Official Development Assistance (, while a whopping 711 billion dollars was requested for military spending ( At the same time that the ballooning defence budget has historically been protected, the foreign aid budget has had to be fought for, scrap by scrap.

    Given current, growing threats to the latter (perhaps correlated with mainstream media disproportionately honing in on corruption and aid inefficiencies), it seems to make sense that officials are making pains to link national interests (and thus, national security and defence) to development in order to sustain aid funding from politicians who don’t seem to care about whether aid works as much as whether aid works for “us” – i.e. the nation and/or their constituencies.

  11. Thanks Owen.

    Great post. Interestingly, when New Zelanders are surveyed, they are in favour of the govt giving aid, and by a large margin the main reason they support aid is for humanitarian reasons, rather than national interest region. If you ask them whether aid works, generally they are much less positive though.

  12. Hi Owen:

    Interesting how much response this blogpost has elicited… must touch a nerve. I agree with your two main points — that the argument for aid should not be over-made in terms of donor self interest, and that the benefits of aid should not be oversold. But I so very much wish you had not chosen school enrollment/attendance as your example of success, when we have growing evidence that schooling often does not lead to learning, that the measure that really matters is learning outcomes rather than schooling inputs. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to defend the billions of dollars governments (often with support from donors) spend each year on schooling…

    For evidence of how virtually universal access to schooling in East Africa has not led to improvements in basic literacy and numeracy, based on large scale household assessments, see:
    for Tanzania:
    for Kenya:
    for Uganda:

    or in India, see:

    For its quality, not years of schooling, that matters see:

    For poor learning and link to teaching incentives, see:

    For one thoughtful donor strategy that seeks to shift the focus from schooling inputs to learning outcomes, see:

    as well as the idea of cash on delivery, which you may have heard about 🙂

  13. Hi Owen,

    Thanks for an insightful and thought-provoking post. I am sure many of us keep asking ourselves this question. I just wanted to respond and agree with Rakesh’s comment, as this is something I feel very strongly about and have commented on in the past couple of posts on

    I largely agree with Rakesh that learning outcomes are a more compelling measure of success than schooling inputs. However, there are two caveats to this statement. First, learning outcomes can be a better measure depending on how student learning (and those outcomes) is captured, assessed and then reported on. To know whether a student has achieved a learning outcome, there needs to be assessment , preferably both formative and summative. Do results from a multiple question test provide solid evidence on student achievement? On what aspect of their learning? It is easy to state that learning outcome will be a better measure, but even learning outcomes can be tricky and inherently bias and misrepresentative.

    Second, we must discount the value of schooling inputs. Students first need to be able to attend a school to achieve learning outcomes. And, access and enrolments is not just literally, walking into class and taking a seat. There is still relatively large amounts of inequality in terms of girls’ access to education. There are political, cultural and economic dimensions to access as well. It becomes problematic when we base our evaluations of education, and aid for education (think MDGs), purely on attendance and enrolments, which do not capture the complexity and various dimensions of student learning and achievement.

    Australia is funding an education partnership with Indonesia, with one of the objective being to construct 2,000 junior secondary schools for 300,000 students. This program has a particular focus on inclusiveness and provision for those special needs. It is already starting to deliver on those outcomes. However, the project will need long term investment and support to improve the learning outcomes of those students, particularly girls and those with special needs, who now have a school to attend. See: See also

    Thanks Owen & Rakesh!

  14. Very good article. I always thought the “national interest” story a sophism, unless you define the national interest as “everything & the kitchen sink, mixed up together to a mush” Most national interest arguments cut both ways: if you define the national interest as the interest of our companies, some will benefit from any course of action, others from the other one.

    Development is about values that stand on their own, and when presenting them as a whole, there is an implicit choice between values we might not want to make explicitly. Democratization and human rights are important enough to fight for, even if they do not lead to economic development.

    The second part of the article touches a difficult issue. “The Public” supports spending dismal amounts to development : 0.7-1% of our richness will not ruin us. However, they ask it to be well spend.

    Owen thinks that transparency will lead to better spending and to more confidence with the public. I am afraid that the wider public is disconnected from the development sector in what they think good development is.

    I advise against trying to defend the Paris Agenda to the wider public. Paying taxes is not popular, I am afraid that giving budget aid to 3rd world governments might be even less so.

    I find that SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) rapid response interventions and giving to missionary type outfits is very popular in the North, while the efficiency of those approaches seldom stand the tests of Randomized Controled Trials. However, they stand the test of visible “activity” for money.

    One of the major challenges seems to me to develop a narrative that is effective and maintains its legitimacy towards the public in the north. Transparency is part of this narrative, but is not enough.

  15. Last night’s ‘The Chinese are coming’ film broadcasted on BBC2 was quite telling. A Zambian market trader was complaining that the Chinese should not be ‘coming here to do business’, instead, she argued, they should boot their economy.

    There was a sense of entitlement in her manner and attitude that I found rather interesting: not directed at the Zambian government but at the international community. I’ve always found this quite fascinating. Who would one protest against if a hospital was closed down in Lusaka: the Ministry of Health or the British High Commission?

    I agree with Alan that most people I’ve met in the uK (and not just Daily Mail readers, btw) would rather see British taxes spent in the UK. I would. City workers are equally skeptical.

    But saying that more money should be spend at home does not mean that no money should be spend in Africa. Take the Chines examples of the film.

    And in any case, Aid is probably (I don’t have evidence for this but i am sure its common sense) the more prosperous a society is the more likely it is to help others. Get more people out of poverty here and you’ll see them focusing their attention on the poor of the world.

  16. I would like to raise few points here:
    What is sometimes called the “aid industry” has proved rather weak at defending its case in the face of attacks. The argument often ends up as a battle over statistics – numbers of children being educated in Africa being cited on one side, numbers of pensioners going without heating on the other. But this isn’t really the point.Aid isn’t going to be the reason why countries such as Ethiopia will grow, or it doesn’t, or whether a corrupt government survives or not. What aid can do is help people to survive in the meantime and, if done well, push good things along a little faster than they would otherwise happen. I think Aid is a moral choice by people and governments in the developed countried.(let me know if there is a positive correlation between being rich and giving in developed countries)
    Finaly, I think the debate on aid is heavily dominated by western academics and practitioners. More African thinking and debate on the key challenges in democracy and development needs to be heard. African experts – from governments, but also from academia, media, and civil society – should address challenges in this area, not least the role of external actors in supporting or transforming domestic challenges. This will in turn provide a solid platform for future dialogue and reform efforts

  17. Owen,

    I’m not sure that many of the critics of this post have made effective cases. Certainly not in the spirit for which it was intended.

    Aid Effectiveness
    Some comments have focused on the school children example rather than the metaphor of people seeing aid in action. You’ve been a strong advocate of improvements in aid effectiveness, so it should come as no surprise that aid can be improved and there is movement to do so.

    The interesting observation is that critics often want more proof of foreign aid than they do for dubious projects back home. Politicians in the West are very proud on inputs: the amount spent on the “bridge to nowhere” or the Olympic games. And yet, outputs aren’t good enough for foreign aid. We demand outomes. This is a multidimensional problem because there are so many factors in place beyond any single aid project. For example, safe drinking water and ease of transportation may be needed to improve education outcomes. That’s why aid transparency, rather than just statistics, is needed to see how aid can be improved.

    That’s not to say that we shouldn’t move forward to measure outcomes in foreign aid. But let’s benchmark it against the local spend!

    Potential Aid Impact
    Government investment can have diminishing returns. Kind of penny wise pound foolish problem. It is possible, especially through improve donor coordintation & aid transparency, where the impact per UK pound spent in foreign aid is an order of magnitude greater than the direct impact that pound would have in the UK. As another analogy, people in poorer countries need microfinancing, people in the UK need macrofinancing.

    And, there seems to be a debate over these pennies relative the pounds spent by the government on rather dubious purposes.

    National Interest
    We can’t afford to think local in the global village. Digital technology, globalization, migration etc. move the problems of poverty to developed countries. It is very much in the national interest of the UK or the US to reduce poverty in developing countries. To achieve the millennium development goals.

  18. Hi Owen, I started writing a reply to this but then realised I was just writing a summary of my book which you have read anyway! Great line about the nickles. Am tired and hungry in Casablanca airport and that made me laugh out loud.

  19. Thanks Owen – this is a very relevant piece especially for us in Australia where the Opposition has just proposed delaying aid increases to help fund repairs caused by local floods. It is natural that people will give higher priority to their own roads and schools and health services than those in other countries – this is why it is said that support for aid is ‘wide but not deep’.

    Thankfully the levels of aid required can be achieved with quite small amounts of Western budgets. The 0.7% of GNI target can be achieved in most countries with 3% or less of the national budget. Surveys in a number of donor countries have indicated that people tend to overestimate the share of the national budget spent on aid and when asked to recommend a share they often nominate a smaller amount that is still higher than 3%. This appears to be most extreme in the USA eg

    Given that aid consumes such a small amount of donor budgets (ie aid levels are largely an executive decision) and that public concerns are understandably largely focused on local issues, the most important group to convince about the effectiveness of aid may be the few senior MPs and finance bureaucrats that determine aid levels.

    1. Several people have pointed out that the public massively overestimate the proportion of the national budget that goes on development assistance. As @Garth points out, this is especially true in the United States. People there think that 25% of spending goes on aid, and say that it should be cut to 10%. Of course, the true figure is about 1%.

      The bad news, however, is that when you tell people the true amount that is spent, they still think it should be smaller. So the fact that people believe that aid should be cut from 25% to 10% does not mean that they really think aid should be increased to 10%. It means they think that, whatever is currently being spent on aid, it is too much.


  20. Owen, thanks for this insightful and thought-provoking post! As a translator based in the US and working on translations for NGOs and government-funded aid projects (mostly in Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Haiti), I’m really thrilled to find your blog. I really appreciate your point about putting aid in context; people who live in the developed world need to realize that if problems such as failing schools, teen pregnancy, water rights and infant mortality have no magic bullet solutions in the US or Europe, they surely don’t have magic bullet solutions in countries where a majority of the population is on the edge of physical survival. Also, I think that many people lump all “aid” together as “funds that will likely be embezzled rather than used wisely,” whereas if we direct people’s attention to specific programs that provide decidedly non-luxury items such as water pumps, pencils and latrines, the average US or European citizen cannot help but get on board! Many thanks for this great blog!

  21. Hi Owen – a very interesting post, and of particular interest to me at the moment as I’m grappling with some of these issues.

    I think you are right to point out the perils of positioning aid as primarily in the national interests of the donor – not least because this compromises aid quality.

    However I’m not convinced by the argument that if only we could show that aid ‘works’, we could reverse the trend among the general public in many rich countries, who are turning away from aid. I know this is the received wisdom – and I hear it a lot – but I wonder if there are more complex motivations:

    – first, the fact that poverty has systemic causes, related to governance in developing countries, has now become much more widely understood among general publics, owing to a combination of more sophisticated news reporting. So large sections of the public is turning away from aid because it feels a little conned by NGOs and governments, who tend to gloss over the more prickly issues, despite the media dialogue having moved on to tell a much more politicized story relating to corruption, human rights, governance and so on.
    – second, the fact that now the majority of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries poses difficult questions. The NGO community and govts have yet to provide a convincing narrative on why, for example, aid is still directed to India, which has a nuclear programme and stages world sports events.
    – third, fewer people in rich countries now believe it is the responsibility of their governments to tackle poverty elsewhere – and want to see much greater accountability in the ‘global south’. This is largely due to the above issues, plus the pinch of the world economic crisis.

    These insights come from a recent mass market survey I conducted in 11 countries across Europe, USA, Aus, Brazil and India, which showed remarkably consistent results. I do plan to dig a little deeper – to develop more insights into the underlying motivations, and that’s why I’m playing with these ideas now.

    Perhaps it’s time we moved the aid story along, and least presented a more honest picture, more closely linked to issues of democracy, human rights, and so on – and a longer-term aim of ending aid dependency. The ‘aid works’ argument doesn’t seem to address the public’s barriers to support.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these points.

    All the best


  22. I’m skeptical like Erin Antcliff and agree with the points brought up by Joe. I have a related article to point out. When it comes to helping the poor of other nations or the poor of your own nation, what would people choose? I just read a Guardian article by Lawrence Haddad about why Brits are upset about giving more aid to India, which is looked upon as a rich country in the context of third-world nations. One argument made against more aid to India is “unemployment in the UK is growing and our public services are being cut.” Even if we show that aid works, it does nothing to reduce this argument. In this case then we need either the national security argument or at least a strictly moral argument as to why aid should be given to a needy country even when the donor country has its own needs.

  23. Hmm… judging from some of the Twitter comments over the past couple of days, I think some of my remarks may have been misunderstood. Re-reading the post, I can see why. My shorthand was a bit misleading.

    When I raised the question of aid to India, I was acknowledging that this raised questions for many publics, which the simple proposition, ‘aid works’ doesn’t seem to address, but that a more progressive position around equity and social justice might – particularly if linked to a vision of ending aid dependency.

    That is not the same as debating whether or not aid to India is justified. I think it is, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. This is a conversation about the public understanding of aid & development.

  24. I found your site and subject interesting. Ideally, aid and development shouldnt be in the same sentence. When it comes to Africa,the aid required for development is never given “Knowledge through education”, and “Financing of African Entrepreneurs”-. Aid as a system is too complex and detached from the real drivers of economic growth… but it will still exist since most developed countries have their ODA ,partly staffed by people not in development business. I bet one would be hard pressed to measure what the bottom line is for aid, beyond the feel good factor obtained by donors…

  25. Jiesheng — the USA gives more money to aid than any other country in the world. Do Americans question the efficacy of their aid more than others? sure. But that’s a good thing.

  26. I have a paper that uses the state level determinants of foreign aid as predictors of individual support. This is similar to David and Jennifer’s paper, except that the dependent variable is actually foreign aid preference. I find that altruism is the best predictor of support for foreign aid. In some cases, national security is actually a negative predictor of support for foreign aid. This brings into question, specifically in the United States, how USAID actually sells their foreign aid policies. It seems that the public is not buying the national interest story and states may be better off crafting official communications about foreign aid using a more altruistic frame. You can access my paper here if you’re interested.

  27. Unfortunately I think you may be wrong about how the general public feels at the moment. Just today I had a member of the general public tell me he doesn’t give a stuff about people in developing countries as he has his own problems. One of my volunteers (I work in a charity shop) almost admitted that she was in agreement with him. I can’t vouch for the man/customer but I know that my volunteer is a kind and generous individual. Very similar emotions were expressed on a recent governemnt website that called for people’s ideas on what should be a priority – many MANY people called for aid to be cut. The reality is that people are actually generally quite selfish. In the North we have become used to a very high standard of living. We seem to now be very reluctant to give any of our luxries up – even if morally it is the right thing to do. Ofcourse I hope I’m wrong for all of sakes.

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Owen Barder

Owen is Senior Fellow and Director for Europe at the Center for Global Development and a Visiting Professor in Practice at the London School of Economics. Owen was a civil servant for a quarter of a century, working in Number 10, the Treasury and the Department for International Development. Owen hosts the Development Drums podcast, and is the author Running for Fitness, the book and website. Owen is on Twitter and