Doom, gloom and despair

I was recently at a seminar run by the estimable folks at BOND (how we love an acronym in our sector!) on public attitudes to international development and what to do about them. It was very illuminating with latest research findings being presented on media coverage of issues related to world poverty and what people think about them including some entertaining and illuminating videos of comments made by focus groups.

In brief, most people think about international development very little, it is really not that important to them and they are terribly confused about the issues and what, if anything, to do about them. And they don’t trust governments, whether UK or African, at all.

So the mood at the seminar was pretty sombre. There was animated discussion about how we might change public attitudes but no consensus about how this might be done. Great was the weeping, wailing and tearing of clothes..

I was one of a handful of people at this meeting who didn’t share the overall anguish. For a start, I’ve been around long enough to have been involved in these discussions many times before and I can’t see very much that has really changed in public attitudes in the last couple of decades. In fact I can remember talking about donor fatigue about giving to Africa after Live Aid, nearly thirty years ago (obviously I was a child at the time…). People didn’t stop giving then and I don’t see why they will stop giving now.

But also I was struck that while the attitude of the public, shaped by media, to government aid was pretty sceptical, their views of charities were much more positive. The public want NGOs to be more involved in development aid not less (they also don’t want private companies to be involved at all). When presented with real need, and something that they can do about it, individuals in the UK will still give generously whether that need is in Africa or Aldershot.

So I am concerned that public support for UK government development aid is weak. I think that’s a problem because I believe our aid budget is a good thing. But I am encouraged that the public think more of that budget should be distributed via NGOs and I strongly believe that if those same NGOs can clearly, simply and convincingly explain what they are doing to relieve human suffering in poorer countries, the public will continue to give also. And give more.

A week after Sport Relief has again raised record sums, a large proportion of which will go to fighting poverty in developing countries, I think our sector’s collective tendency towards gloom and despondency needs some challenging.

We’re not all doomed. At least, not yet..

2 thoughts on “Doom, gloom and despair

  1. Hi Tobin – broadly agree with the analysis that this is not a new phenomenon, but what I think is positively different this time around is that the public do not accept the tired old narrative put out by the aid industry that all they need to do is give a bit more money. Sorry, but if that was the case poverty would not still be as endemic as it is now. Most notable perhaps is that this criticism is increasingly coming from civil society in recipient countries who challenge the idea that you can achieve “development” without tackling the political and power dynamics that prevent progress being made. Dambisa Moyo is far from the only example of this, John Githongo would be another.
    The reason the MDGs have left the poorest and most vulnerable, well, poor and vulnerable (World Development Report 2011 is a good illustration of this) is that they specifically ignored the political in favour of the economic.
    Let’s hope the next phase of development deals with the world as it is rather than avoiding all those rather awkward issues.

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