Not another Live Aid
Next year will be crucial for the UK’s international development policy. With the UK in the G8 chair and David Cameron co-chairing a UN committee that will oversee the setting of new global development goals, the UK once again has an opportunity to shape international action against poverty.
But 2013 is unlikely to see a repeat of 2005, when unprecedented public mobilisation (through the Make Poverty History Campaign and Live 8), and the commitment to international development from Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, saw global leaders at Gleneagles make important promises to increase aid. In part, this is just a function of changed economic and political conditions. That reality is laid bare in yesterday’s Data Report, of world leaders to keep those 2005 promises. But 2013 is still a real opportunity for the UK to influence aid decisions.
The government’s ability to take advantage of that opportunity will be limited by the domestic politics of aid. David Cameron has secured his place as co-chair of the UN committee by virtue of the UK staying on track to meet its commitment to give 0.7% of GNI as aid by 2013 (a record that both the current and previous government can be rightly proud of). But that commitment has been maintained in the face of public spending cuts across almost every other area of public spending, resistance from Conservative backbenchers, and declining public support for aid in the context of deficit reduction.
Notwithstanding the important role of the 0.7% aid commitment in ‘detoxifying’ the Tory brand (although Conservative backbenchers don’t seem convinced of this), it shouldn’t be assumed that these pressures won’t lead the Chancellor to renegotiate, delay, or (more likely) redefine the commitment in the next spending review – the truth is that he would be going with the grain of public opinion if he did.
Ironically this is happening even as evidence continues to mount that aid does work, and alongside significant improvements in aid effectiveness.
As UK NGOs revisit the Make Poverty History playbook of 2005 in an attempt to push development back onto the public agenda next year with a focus on food and hunger, it is worth reflecting on how best to engage the public, given how much times have changed since the 2005. New research from IPPR and ODI published yesterday suggests that, although the times have changed, public messages about development and aid haven’t changed enough.
The UK public have a strong moral commitment to the fight against poverty around the world, but money is tight, they have no means of directly observing the result of aid, and they quite reasonably want to know how aid spending works and how change might really happen.
Our research suggests that if NGOs and government want to engage the public with international development next year, and food and hunger issues in particular, they must find brave and new ways to communicate the complicated reality of development. Branding British aid with the Union Jack will not help to deepen public support for aid and make it more resilient to economic and political challenge. In order to do that, the development community must start talking about development success stories (in Africa as well as Asia and Latin America), setting out how change has happened and what role aid has played. But this should not be a simplified story in which aid always works – NGOs and governments should not be being afraid to provide taxpayers and donors with a ‘warts and all’ view of the aid system that explains the challenges as well as the triumphs. The narrative must also go beyond aid – the public need to hear about the role of big business (including UK business) in the global food system if they are to be engaged with the big questions of economic and political reform that will really be needed to end global hunger.
Unless we deepen as well as broaden public support for aid in 2013, public and political support will remain fragile and susceptible to changing economic times and domestic political pressures. Make Poverty History was a great success in 2005 in many ways, but it did not effectively challenge a ‘Live Aid’ public view of aid and development that is too simple to be resilient in the face of political attacks on aid and tough economic times. The 2013 campaign can’t be more of the same.