Why is foreign aid an easy cut?

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There was a sense of déjà vu among Australians watching the news of U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to slash funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development and United Nations.

Just as Trump promised voters that foreign spending would take a back seat, so too had Tony Abbott, who won the 2013 election for prime minister with a vow to chop Australia’s foreign aid budget. Over the next two years, 11 billion Australian dollars ($8.3 billion) was cut from Australian support for programs in developing countries.

In Australia, the development sector has been strong in their opposition to the cuts. In the U.S., the development sector is beginning to fight back. But will it be enough?

Parallels between Australia and the U.S. reveal that for many voters, foreign aid is an easy cut. Devex reveals why and the important role nongovernmental organizations will play in creating change.

Charity begins at home

Australia’s aid cuts were justified by former Treasurer Joe Hockey as necessary to build a stronger nation. “We can't continue to fund a massive increase in foreign aid at the expense of investment in the Australian economy,” he told media at the time.

NGOs and supporters of aid spoke out against Australia’s cuts, but on the whole, Australian voters remained largely silent. Budget talk largely focused on issues associated with public health, housing affordability, cost of living and social welfare.

“Charity begins at home” was a common cry heard from supporters of cuts at the time, and a 2015 survey by Essential Media found that Australians on the whole believed too much was being spent on foreign aid. For U.S. voters calling to “make America great again,” foreign aid could similarly be an easy and obvious budget cut.

Gaps in aid awareness

Research in both Australia and the U.S. demonstrate that cuts play off a fundamental lack of awareness and education on foreign aid.

In 2011, research from the Lowy Institute found that the Australian public massively overestimated what proportion of the federal budget went to the aid program. On average they guessed that 16 percent of the budget is spent on aid, when at the time it was just 1.3 percent.

And a survey conducted last year on aid spending by the Campaign for Australian Aid revealed the public still overestimated aid spend, multiplying its true share of the federal budget (0.9 percent) by approximately 14 times.

For the U.S., the story is similar. Last year research by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that on average respondents assumed that 31 percent of the budget was spent on foreign aid. Only 3 percent correctly guessed that less than 1 percent is spent on aid.

Improved communication and engagement with the public, both by the aid program and aid program partners, is a critical step that needs to be taken to reduce the severity of future cuts.

Linking aid to home

Lessons for aid in the Trump era, from Australia

Australia's aid program was targeted for heavy budget cuts several years ago under the Tony Abbott government. Here are some lessons that international NGOs learned during the process — and how partners of the U.S. Agency for International Development can start to prepare now.

Australia’s aid program appears to be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — slight increases are predicted for future budgets in line with total spending. But Australian politicians still questioning the value of aid today create further issues in public education.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Australia’s minister for international development and the Pacific, are strong supporters of aid's role in creating regional and global stability and they recognize the importance of public support for aid stability and growth.

To gain public support, their strategy is to link the work of the aid program to home.

Bishop and Fierravanti-Wells are encouraging both the aid program and its partners to communicate stories of aid success. By linking aid activities as direct responses to Australian concerns of terrorism, disease and economic prosperity, advocates hope they can sway the Australian public in favor of foreign aid spending.

Their success may be seen in the May 2017 federal budget.

How should NGOs respond to the aid cuts?

While some may argue that doing good and providing international leadership should be enough to justify foreign aid spending, this still needs to be communicated to U.S. voters who may be facing personal economic hardship. And for Americans who believe almost one-third of the federal budget goes to aid, there are clear misconceptions that need to be addressed.

Linking aid to individual security, health and prosperity is possibly the easiest argument to make. The problem for the U.S. is identifying a strong leader in the current administration who will push to educate and create awareness. If not, NGOs will need to take leadership on this responsibility.

There is no doubt the road ahead to change perception and create broad public support for foreign aid will be a long one. It is still a battle Australian NGOs are fighting and will continue to fight. The U.S. should be no different.

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About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.