The total sum of charitable giving by Brits last year amounted to £9.7 billion. Just 10 percent of donations went to overseas aid and disaster relief charities, a figure which has shrunk by 5 percent over the past decade.
UK public interest in the aid and development sector is dwindling, demonstrated not just in giving statistics but also the diminishing interest in humanitarian journalism. This has been reflected in the reputable sector outlets being forced into ‘hibernation’ due to funding cuts; a trend contradictory to the need for aid coverage. At present, 65 million people are displaced worldwide in the highest number of refugees ever recorded, while 20 million face famine across just four countries.
So, when the need for ever greater humanitarian action is required, why is interest in helping increasingly reticent? Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) believes it comes down to a matter of trust, or more appropriate perhaps—distrust. CAF’s Giving Report 2017 states, “research shows that those who engage with charities are the most likely to trust them.”
In order to restore faith in the aid and development sector, we must rebuild public trust in it by changing the discourse around foreign aid. The three key areas that can influence the development dichotomy include; media responsibility, government strategy and accountability, and transparency.
Charitable donations in December 2016 dropped according to the 2017 Giving report, partly as a result of “a prolonged negative media narrative towards international development spending.”
Conversations must shift away from charity-starts-at-home repertoire which hears phrases such as, “the government needs to focus on fixing its problems at home before spending money helping people abroad.” Global solutions are hard to come by. Hence, world poverty is yet to be resolved in spite of charity relief appeals that promise to “end poverty with just £2 a month.”
These complex narratives require fair and moral streams of communication. It is not a matter of calling on the UK government to cut the foreign aid budget and divert the funds back into domestic issues. The press must be called out when it oversimplifies issues and its scaremongering of foreigners, which perpetuates a climate of hatred, violence and discrimination in Britain—largely reflected in the Brexit vote.
Instead, the media ought to support efforts to find more effective and accountable approaches to humanitarian relief and poverty reduction by encouraging productive discussion and reductive counterproductive reporting.
A stronger, more accountable government aid strategy
While responsible reporting will stop the promotion of misconceptions and the bitterness that coincides, this is not enough to rebuild trust in the sector. Negative public rhetoric is largely focused on waste and corruption, with 56 percent of the UK population believing that most aid is wasted. Corruption concerns are valid and must be addressed—which is why accountability and transparency is fundamental.
The current cross-government strategy for Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) is not working. Under David Cameron, DfID was ordered to spend at least half of its money on “fragile states and regions” until 2020, as part of the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. This has been detrimental to the effectiveness of foreign aid distribution.
The spread of ODA across departments has diminished its scrutiny and management efficacy. Take the “opaque” and secretive conflict, stability and security fund (CSSF) financed by the aid budget. Just last week, the government faced questions after human rights groups flagged that almost £2 million in aid and defence funding was handed to security projects in Egypt associated with human rights abuses.
According to a recent National Audit Office (NAO) report, it is particularly difficult to detect fraud in over half of the spending of the Department for International Development (DfID) because of this cross-departmental approach. This year it was revealed that fraud investigations involving foreign aid quadrupled over five years as more public money went to fragile countries.
The government must shift the aid budget away from defence and security if it is to become more accountable and detach itself from dishonesty.
At the crux of widespread distrust towards overseas aid spending is the lack of transparency, directly conducive to fraud and corruption flourishing. The response to crisis and poverty depends on resources, but these funds are only effective if the information around the process of aid delivery is available.
We cannot afford to lose interest and subsequent funding in the aid and development sector at a time of global humanitarian crises. But without a government that operates with transparency and accountability, coincided with a principled media narrative, people will inevitably disengage.
Visibility is the agency for honesty. Only once the media and government operate responsibly and with integrity can the UK public trust the means through which they can invest in humanitarian welfare.
This article was originally published as an exclusive for The Diplomatic Courier.