The crowd during Open Doors Day outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Photo by: European Union / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — Almost 9 in 10 European Union citizens think it’s important to help developing countries and most want to either maintain or increase the level of foreign aid, but fewer people say they are giving to charities and NGOs, according to data released Tuesday.

The Eurobarometer survey on EU citizens and development cooperation reflects almost 28,000 face-to-face interviews carried out on behalf of the European Commission this summer. Some 22 percent of people said they give money to NGOs or charities, down 5 points since 2016, while 21 percent make ethical choices when shopping, 6 percent do voluntary work, and 5 percent support digital campaigns.

But Florian Oel, spokesperson for Oxfam International in Brussels, said international NGOs are yet to register a decline in donations from individual supporters in their shared database. “Neither the number of regular donors nor the actual income from regular donations have decreased,” he said.

On aid spending, 29 percent think the EU and its member states should spend more on developing countries — 7 points more than in 2016 — and 48 percent said it should stay the same. Friederike Röder, EU and France director at ONE, said the results were a reminder of the need for more ambition for development under the EU’s 2021-2027 budget, now being negotiated.

“What policymakers say and do is indeed disconnected from what citizens think,” Röder said, after Europeans nominated peace and security, education, health, and water and sanitation as the most pressing development issues. “For example, 86 percent of respondents think European development policy should also focus on equality between women and men. However, as we noted, along with a coalition of NGOs, gender equality is hardly mentioned in the commission's proposal for external aid in the next seven-year budget.”

As in 2015 and 2016, 89 percent of EU citizens think it’s important to help people in the developing world, but the results varied by country. In Sweden, 96 percent of people think it’s important to help, compared to 68 percent in Estonia where 18 percent of people think it’s not important at all.

Sigrid Solnik, director of the Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation, said she and her colleagues were “genuinely surprised” at the results. She cited people’s dissatisfaction with the state, an “us-versus-them” public discourse, and poor knowledge of what development is, adding that the survey “could be one of the indicators showing that we should brace ourselves for the national elections coming in March.”

Johannes Trimmel, president of the European NGO confederation CONCORD, said the nations that least wanted to help developing countries — Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Latvia, Bulgaria, and Estonia — “are all countries that have very limited bilateral development cooperation. So there is no big tradition in their political discussion and environment to engage in development cooperation. It’s not something that’s even talked about by politicians.”

The survey found that television is by far the most popular source of information about development issues, especially for older generations, followed by social media and national newspapers. But the survey’s authors found, “respondents who get information on development issues from TV are less likely to think aid should increase and less likely to think individuals can have an impact.”

Some 69 percent of people agree that financial assistance to developing countries is effective in addressing “irregular” or undocumented migration, which has been a controversial tenet of EU development policy thinking in recent years. But that figure is down four points from December 2015, and in the same timeframe, the proportion of people who disagree has risen from 20 to 25 percent.

“We know that there is no direct, immediate connection between development aid spent in countries and migration,” Trimmel said. “So I would assume that people do not buy into this rhetoric anymore.”

The commission pointed to growing support for the links between aid and tackling irregular migration in 14 countries since 2016, including Malta, Greece, and Bulgaria. But in many countries, fewer people now hold this view. In Sweden, which accepted the most asylum seekers per capita of any European country in 2015, 63 percent of people agree that aid is effective in addressing migration, down from 75 percent in 2016.

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.