development politics

Overestimating aid – some good news?

For several years developed countries have had a target figure for overseas development aid of 0.7% of the national budget. This was the amount needed to fund all the Millennium Development Goals. Despite repeatedly re-affirming that promise, few countries have met the target (see below). With budgets increasingly squeezed, many countries have quietly ditched it altogether.

To their credit, the coalition government pledged to keep the aid promise. It was ring-fenced in the austerity cuts, to the annoyance of some politicians and certain media outlets that thought it was an obvious thing to trim. This year Britain assigned 0.56% of the budget to international aid, and next year we should hit the 0.7% figure.

The government should take pride in this, and talk more about it. According to a recent ComRes poll, most people support giving considerably more.

In reality, the average person doesn’t have a clue how much we spend in aid. When asked to estimate how much the government had bookmarked for aid next year, only 15% guessed anywhere near it, and two thirds of responders overestimated the figure considerably. One in five people think we give over 20% of the budget, with a rather worrying one in ten guessing 40% or more.

Clearly, we need to be talking louder about what we actually give in aid – less than one percent.

When people understand this, they might be more disappointed than angry. The second question on the survey asked how much we ought to give, and 55% said we should be giving more than 2.5%. One in five named a figure over 10% of the budget.

So here’s the good news: aid spending is more popular than we think it is. People are only opposed to it because they don’t know how much we actually spend.

(The same may be true of asylum seekers. A couple of years ago a survey for the Refugee Council asked people to estimate the number of refugees accepted into the UK in the last year. 44% of UK adults estimated 100,000, when the  actual number was just 4,175.)

It might not quite as simple as educating people however. What’s interesting is that a YouGov poll conducted earlier this year tackled the same questions, but asked people to estimate the actual figure rather than the percentage of spend. The average guess was £79 billion, which would be 8% of the budget and more than we spend on education. Even though they had overestimated pretty wildly, when people were told the actual figure of £8.5 billion, 61% still thought this was too high and that we should give less.

What do we conclude? Presumably that people are scared by large numbers. 0.7% we can agree on, but £8.5 billion? There’s a recession on, don’t you know. The anti-aid tabloids always focus on the big numbers, you’ll notice. It’s up to politicians and development agencies to keep putting those numbers in perspective.

  • Similar surveys have been conducted in the US. Here’s one.

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