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Nigel Farage is wrong on the aid budget – but it’s an argument that’s worth having

17 April 2015

Guest post for The Guardian.

Nigel Farage launched Ukip’s 2015 manifesto on Wednesday with a promise to hack deep into the foreign aid budget. Indeed, the manifesto goes so far as to suggest that the aid programme is responsible for increasing the national debt we leave to our children.

We need to think about this attack on the UK aid programme in its proper context. Farage’s pitch is not a fiscal one, it’s a political one. It appeals to his populist sentiments, contra the elite consensus. It is an extension of Ukip’s anti-immigrant, Britain-first ideology. It’s tempting to dismiss it as dog whistle politics at its shrillest and most audible. But the fact that it’s audible and doesn’t sound wholly unreasonable to much of the public is precisely the point.

Cutting the foreign aid budget, as much as we might think it wrong-headed, driven by dubious ideology and more than a sprinkling of racial resentment, is not a fringe position only acceptable where you can buy good fish and chips. It taps into a much more general sense of disquiet about where the aid money goes and what it achieves.

In addition to slashing the budget, the manifesto pledges to close the Department for International Development, arguing that it’s ineffective. Yet the most recent OECD peer review of DfID recognises it as a global leader, providing high-quality funding, with an effective systems, impressive results, and is a top performer on transparency. An aid programme to be proud of. This message isn’t being translated to the wider public, however.

The further pledge, which has gone largely unreported, to repeal recent legislation committing aid spending to 0.7% of GNI starts to reveal why. The legislation is a historic and hard-won victory for development campaigners. It reflects an extraordinary level of political commitment and cross-party consensus from the “old parties”. And yet, the fact that the bill had to be introduced as a private members bill reveals a deeper problem. The political leadership and commitment to the aid programme appears to stop outside SW1A. Here’s the rub: just as with the ringfencing of the aid budget, the legislation has the potential to act as a political lightening rod for those on the political right.

Farage’s calculation is that the public are against foreign aid. Yet, public opinion on foreign aid is much more complicated. Many polls show that the public are sceptical of aid, yet others find the British public very much in favour of increasing aid. Focus groups – when people start to reflect and discuss – can reveal the dynamics behind such apparent contradictions. The common sentiment is that aid is a good idea done badly. People aren’t really opposed to aid at all. They’re opposed to waste and unclear tangible benefits. Research carried out by IPPR and ODI found that the UK public were ready for a more constructive conversation about development.

Traditionally, the government, as with the one before it, has tried to convince the public by arguing that it’s both the morally right thing to do and in the national interest. This might convince the already believing, but does little to bring people across the aisle. Indeed, exhorting a moral imperative tends to turn many off; we don’t like be lectured to. Meanwhile, telling people it’s in our national interest just doesn’t cut it with the general public; no one buys the arguments about aid serving our national interest, increasing our security, reducing terrorism and immigration. They’re probably right not to. Moreover, there is evidence that self-interest arguments actually turn people off. This is because psychologists have found that if self-regarding attitudes are activated people become less likely to support “bigger than self” problems. Another favourite: just giving people the facts doesn’t help either.

So what might work? Here are four suggestions. First, be honest. This doesn’t mean banging on about how complex development is, but just acknowledging people’s concerns seriously, which has to include a grown-up conversation about corruption. To engage people we need to start where people are at, not where we want to be, and seek out trusted messengers.

Second, people are usually much more supportive of aid when it is presented as a route to self-sufficiency. You can bet your house on someone in a focus group saying “give a man a fish” before the fifth minute is up.

Third, survey data suggest that one of the most compelling arguments for aid is to appeal to people’s sense of national pride. Show people that aid means something.

And fourth, we need interesting and memorable stories of these tangible benefits. Stop being boring. There will always be stories of failure and corruption. We need compelling counter-narratives that are as sticky in people’s minds as the India space programme and Imelda Marcos’s shoes.

We can’t just dismiss Ukip and more general concerns about the aid budget and DfID as wrong and bigoted. That won’t achieve anything. Instead we need to make the public case for development in a way that makes sense, simple but honest. This – winning the argument and allowing people to engage – is a political and emotional task, not an intellectual or moral one.

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