British public deeply divided on why they support aid, survey finds

U.K.'s emergency medical team helping to contain an outbreak of diphtheria at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo by: Russell Watkins / DFID / CC BY

A new survey has found that 66% of the British public supports foreign aid spending, but that Britons are deeply divided on why they support foreign aid spending, which researchers worry presents challenges for communicating with the entire country about development.

Just 17% of the 2,002 survey respondents polled in the British Foreign Policy Group’s annual survey were opposed to foreign aid, and the same proportion were undecided.

Twenty percent of those polled who were supportive of aid spending agreed that it was a “central part of [Britain’s] moral duty to help the world’s poorest people, as a leading global power.” Fifteen percent supported “lifting up other nations” to help improve the global economy, while 13% thought that aid spending helped peace and security while making Britain safer, and 10% thought the U.K. had a “special responsibility” as a former colonial power.

Despite it being a popular line among British politicians, just 8% of people thought “UK’s status as a world-leading donor strengthens the UK’s global reputation and our international influence,” according to the report.

The results varied notably between people who voted to leave or remain in the European Union in the U.K.’s 2016 referendum. Around twice the number of Remainers than Leavers were likely to support aid out of a sense of moral duty and because of the U.K.’s imperial past.

“The varied responses highlight the challenge for both Government and the aid sector to effectively speak to Britons’ individual and collective motivations,” the report states. “A hard-nosed argument around economic interests, security or soft power will speak to some groups, while others may be repelled by the suggestion that Britain’s moral duty can be surpassed.”

Sophia Gaston, director at the British Foreign Policy Group, said the results had mixed implications for government communications. She wrote to Devex: “On the plus side, it suggests there's a degree of resilience to the ups and downs of the political and media cycle, because even if the moral case comes into question, the security and other arguments will still stand — and vice versa. Equally, it makes it difficult for the Government to speak to the nation about foreign aid in an inclusive manner, which captures hearts and minds, without potentially alienating different groups.”

As the U.K. is a leading aid donor and because of the government’s recent foreign policy changes, Gaston said it was “essential that the British people understand the strategic importance of our investments, their transformative capacity to individuals and communities, and the ways in which they help us to authentically project our values around the globe.”

“It makes it difficult for the Government to speak to the nation about foreign aid in an inclusive manner, which captures hearts and minds, without potentially alienating different groups.”

— Sophia Gaston, director, British Foreign Policy Group

Romilly Greenhill, U.K. director at the ONE Campaign, which has conducted similar polling, reached a different conclusion to the research’s results.         

“The moral case still comes out as the top of the list for both remainers and leavers,” she told Devex. “Yes, you can argue it’s spread across the group, and that's true but overall the moral case resonates most with people — and that's consistent with polling we’ve seen elsewhere.”

Government aid spending on short term objectives in the national interest, such as spending official development assistance in China to promote business, “did erode support for aid” Greenhill said. “The public often object to this type of spending. We don’t tend to find a lot of people objecting to children being vaccinated in Malawi or girls going to school in Ethiopia. So making that moral case remains incredibly important,” she added.

The report found high levels of support for the U.K.’s aid work. “Despite the often-fractious public debate around foreign aid, Britons are clearly sold on the value of a wide scope of development activities,” according to the report.

But 72% of respondents also thought that ODA should be stopped or reduced until the U.K.’s financial situation improves. The government announced last November that it would not meet its legally mandated target of spending 0.7% of national income on ODA, and would be cutting the budget to 0.5% until “the fiscal situation allows.”

Greenhill took issue with how this survey question was framed, saying it missed the argument — endorsed by the U.K. government — that “to end the pandemic anywhere, we need to end it everywhere.” The U.K. government has donated £548 million ($763 million) to the COVAX mechanism to distribute vaccines to lower income countries, but Clive Dix, head of the U.K. Vaccine Taskforce, ruled out donating any vaccines before the British population is immunized.

A poll by the NGO Christian Aid recently found 63% of Britons favoured a vaccine distribution system which did not prioritize richer countries over low-income countries.

“COVID absolutely demonstrates why international development efforts are so important,” said Greenhill. “You don’t end the pandemic with a vaccine, you end the pandemic when everybody is vaccinated."

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at