Selling foreign aid to the public: it’s all about sex baby

The 7th Annual Lowy Insitute Poll, surveying the public opinion of Australians on a wide variety of issues, was recently published. New questions this year included those on foreign aid.The Lowy Institute asked Australians to give their ‘hunch about what percentage of the Australian Federal budget you think is actually spent on foreign aid.’

The research reveals that 31% of Australians think the Federal Government spends a whopping 20% of the budget on foreign aid. In fact, it is only 1.3%, representing 0.35% of GNI or $3.30 each week for Australians earning $1,000/week. Australians were also asked ‘what percentage of the Australian Federal budget, if any, do you personally think should be spent on foreign aid?’ On average, Australians suggest that 12% spent on foreign aid, less than the estimate of what is spent but an enormous increase on the actual amount. Only 4% say nothing should be spent and a further 3% that less than 1% should be spent.

Similar surveys overseas have found similar misunderstandings of foreign aid allocation in national budgets. On average, Americans estimate that 27% of the budget was spent on foreign aid, compared with an average of 16% in Australia. In the same survey, conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org, Americans believed that 12% of the budget should be spent on foreign aid. Another survey (above) by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland found that Americans think 25% of the federal budget is spent on foreign aid. When asked how much would be appropriate to spend on foreign aid, the median response was 10%. These perceptions would probably explain why 59% of Americans would favour cuts to the foreign aid budget. I think we would find similar support for cuts to aid in Australia.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8ybGVSCckc

There is a high level of consistency across these and other surveys. They raise a number of questions about our understanding of public policy, our shared values and how democratic governments manage their relationship with electorates. In particular, how they communicate nationally shared values and public policy decisions to the electorate. Governments have a responsibility to clearly communicate and educate about public policy. But, do they do it well?

Spencer Henson, at an event co- hosted by the Insitute of Development Studies (IDS) on UK public perceptions of aid, concluded that

“we need more research, to allow us to interpret the data we have and understand causality better. We have problems with communication as we do not understand the people we are trying to communicate with…we would be better off to tackle the issue of failure head on, acknowledging it and explaining it, and contrast to examples of aid working well in other contexts”.

Is it about selling and understanding your audience? Democratic governments often try to understand its audience through polling data. Statistics help mediate the relationship between the elected and elector. However, how we interpret such numbers can be flawed and short-sighted. The West Wing provides a great example of this. Characters Joey Lucas and Josh Lyman are arguing about what the polling numbers on gun control mean for a certain Congressional district. Josh argues that they need to dial the rhetoric down on gun control. Joey counters, arguing

“You say that these numbers mean dial it down. I say they mean dial it up. You haven’t gotten through. There are people you haven’t persuaded yet. These number mean dial it up. Otherwise you’re like the French radical, watching the crowd run by and saying, ‘There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them’”.

Advertisers understand their audience, particularly those hired by condom makers.

I am not suggesting that the government should use sex to sell foreign aid, but that it should get serious and creative about communicating the subject. Aid that is, not sex. More money should be allocated in the aid budget to selling and educating the public about Australia’s aid program. There are many objections I am sure to this suggestion. However, there are also benefits, as condom ads so well explain. For Australia’s aid program, this could lead to more public support for the proposed increase of the aid budget to 0.5% of GNI and eventually to the international benchmark of 0.7%. There has been much discussion around Australia’s aid program recently, promopted by the Independent Review of Aid Effectiveness, which has now been submitted to the Federal Government. The debate has been lively, insightful and needed. How widespread,  inclusive and visible  it was is another matter. It is another missed opportunity by the Australian Federal Government to dial it up, as with climate change and the contribution of refugees.

Paul Mylrea, Director of Communications at the Department for International Development (DFID) explained that DFID has attempted to segment its audience.

“…but has done so according to their level of support for development appending, starting with ‘Active Enthusiasts’ and down to ‘Distracted Individuals’. DFID focuses their communication efforts on the first two groups rather than trying to convince sceptics. Mylrea explained that DFID is also actively exploring how these attitudes are formed, and how people might be moved from one group to another. A recent initiative of the department’s is the rebranding of British international aid spending as ‘UKAid’ – something more meaningful to most people than the ‘DFID’ acronym. The idea is to label government activity, and thereby show that the 0.7% of GDP to be spent as aid can make a real difference. The challenge is to remain accountable to the British public at a time when polls suggest a downturn in support and a shift from international to domestic concerns”.

As in some of the condom ads, you do not need to sell sex, sex sells itself. You do not need to sell effective, smart aid. You just need to communicate it well. Aid sells itself.

 

Update 5th July, 2011

ChildFund Australia just released the results from their survey of 1,000 Australians, which found that 2/3 believe that aid was effective to some degree, but that 1/3 did not believe that aid was effective in reducing child mortality.

ChildFund Australia’s CEO, Nigel Spence, had this to say in the accompanying media release

“It is encouraging to know that most Australians continue to believe aid is effective. But it is also evident that there are many inaccuracies and contradictions in understandings about aid, and there are indications that public support could be declining.

Australian aid agencies have a critical role in engaging the Australian public in global development issues, but must find ways to communicate the complexity, successes and limitations of aid. It is time to deliver a more contemporary, humane and accurate story about aid and global poverty.”

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Brendan Rigby

Director & co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist with eight years of experience working as a teacher, researcher and programme officer. Most recently, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF in Tamale, Ghana. This year, Brendan is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education. He is also a communications consultant for Plan Asia and Director of Venture Support at StartSomeGood.

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4 Comments to “Selling foreign aid to the public: it’s all about sex baby”

  1. Laura says:

    In one sense it is incredible to think that (a set of surveyed) Australians are essentially advocating a 12% expenditure of the federal government budget on foreign aid…however this fanciful figure is coming from the same bunch of people who were so completely clueless about the reality of actual aid expenditure, so how warped is this fantasy?!
    If we were to imagine that those polled and surveyed reflected an accurate representation of Australian society, than the figures in the graph and second paragraph alone represent how generously misguided Australians are when it comes to their perceptions of our role in global development concerns.

  2. Alex Grey says:

    I agree, Doug, government advertising really starts behind the 8 ball nowadays. Plus, it's often not exceptionally good, so it doesn't get itself far past the 8 ball either. But I certainly wouldn't want that to be an excuse for government not to try to communicate better on this issue. Advertising problems don't foreclose other avenues for communication of what aid is, what it does, and when it does well.

    It also highlights a broader issue: the need for many governments to start leading the way to better public discourse generally, so that a government isn't backed into the advertising corner whenever serious exchange of ideas or education is needed.

  3. Doug Hadden says:

    I can't help but think that traditional media methods is the problem in the first place. The aid perception problem is based on the noise any subject gets in traditional broadcast journalism. There's an interesting observation in Super Freakonomics that reporting on shark attacks increased when there was no increase in shark attacks. And, there are far more people killed by elephants every year than sharks. Advertising, no matter how sexy, has become more distrusted. Public policy advertising may not have any positive effects because of the underlying suspicion that governments are trying to hoodwink citizens.

    My sense is that social media and so-called "data journalism" will ultimately be more effective.

    • Mike says:

      Well said Doug! The inherent mistrust of governments is something that leaders need to get their heads around, but so far, haven't done so.