Awkward development: why overseas charities face a difficult decade

Having secured the 0.7% of aid target for the world’s poor, overseas aid charities have found themselves out of step with some right wing politicians and portions of the public. As a result, I worry that they are going to suffer over the next decade.

Having secured the 0.7% of aid target for the world’s poor, overseas aid charities have found themselves out of step with some right wing politicians and portions of the public. As a result, I worry that they are going to suffer over the next decade.

Here are my reasons why:

Overseas development isn’t high on people’s list of priorities

When we ask the public to tell us their favourite cause, overseas development is 13th on the list. Cancer, animals, hospices, disability and others all come above them on the list. Overseas charities have marketed themselves very well to make up for this lack of natural empathy in the public’s affection. There are a variety of reasons for the public’s low priority but personal experience is a key driver for many people’s favourite cause, something which overseas charities by definition struggle to deliver.

 

The public doesn’t buy their narrative on global poverty

The overseas charity sector has failed to persuade the public in almost all of its narrative about the reasons for global poverty. As the chart below shows, for the public, war and conflict, corruption among leaders, overpopulation are the top three reasons for global poverty. While climate change, government debt, and trade rules are three of the bottom four. Yet these are issues on which overseas charities have campaigned extensively on.

Neither of these last two factors are especially new or different. So what makes the next decade likely to be especially difficult for overseas charities?

Times are tough for all charities

It is worth saying that, at one level the challenges that overseas charities face are no different from all charities. It’s going to be tough for all of them. Economic uncertainty, government austerity, new fundraising self-regulation and EU data protection rules are all going to make raising money harder. Yet there are a number of special factors that make the head winds for overseas charities just that bit  harder.

 

The public doesn’t support an increase in aid

While most people support giving more money to the NHS in times of austerity, the evidence is that far fewer support increasing overseas aid. Persuading the government (or at least David Cameron) that fixing the 0.7% makes economic and political sense runs far far ahead of the public being convinced of the same thing.

 

Right-wing politicians have it in for overseas development.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that a portion of the right wing doesn’t like overseas development charities. It’s worth remembering that the initial research on CEO salaries in 2013 in the Telegraph was about overseas charities specifically. Our research with MPs in 2013 showed that the ‘overseas aid/international development’ sector had the highest score for being ‘the most political’ of all sectors (with 24% of Tory MPs, but just 11% of Labour rating it as such). Alongside this there are numerous examples of individual Conservation politicians complaining about the work of overseas charities.

 

The victory on 0.7% hasn’t helped

One of the reasons for the recent increase in attacks from politicians on overseas charities is almost certainly the passing into law that overseas aid should be 0.7% of GDP. Overseas charities have campaigned for this for decades and can be proud of their achievement. But many Conservative politicians don’t like it at all. So the attacks on overseas charities are a sort of ‘retribution by proxy’: they don’t want to attack their own party so they attack the campaigners who bought it about. And the right-wing press cover many of those attacks with enthusiasm.

 

The European refugee crisis has really muddied the water

Many overseas charities have been intimately involved in trying to solve the flow of refugees into Europe from both Turkey and Libya. They have also tried to create political solutions, such as the pressure for the UK government to accept lone child refugees. The exceptional challenge for overseas charities, the European refugee crisis has created, is in the attitudes to refugees and to immigration. Normally humanitarian crisis are the other side of the world, not in our own backyard, and the public respond very generously. Now the refugees are in Europe, even camping on the other side of the Channel, a section of the public is not so sympathetic.

 

How should overseas charities respond? I don’t suggest for one moment they should stop addressing the issues that matter to them. It is how they do it, not what they do that could change.

I think there are at least 3 solutions:

 

Rein back new campaigns, consolidate recent success

Historically overseas charities are naturally one of the best and most effective campaigners. The track record is impressive, with 0.7% now achieved (and a climate change deal secured, and the Millennium Development goals working…). The campaign machine is now onto the next campaign (often inequality and tax havens). Call off the dogs, and spend more time consolidating recent victories and persuading the public that they make sense. As the chart above shows, the public still need persuading on aid increases and climate (to name but two) even if the government doesn’t.

 

Don’t ignore public opinion

The other striking thing about what the public thinks about the big issues causing global poverty is that overseas charities are silent about them: they say very little about corruption or about overpopulation for example. It’s hard to persuade the public of your perspective if their mind is already made up. As the Buddhist parable says ‘once the cup is full, adding more only makes it run over’. Overseas charities have to provide a narrative on why corruption or overpopulation are not the problems, before they will be able to convince the public that trade, climate change or more aid are the real problems. The lesson from left-wing politicians on immigration is that saying nothing about issues that your audience doesn’t like, is no solution at all.

 

Bite the hand that feeds you

One campaign that you won’t find among overseas charities is criticism of government aid expenditure. This is for the simple reason that they having campaigned so hard for more aid expenditure, how could overseas charities then complain that it’s not well spent. The irony is of course that overseas charities are one of the best positioned agents to see how effectively aid is spent. Their voice is all but silenced. Indeed they are more likely to say what a great idea it is. If they want the public to see them as honest brokers, then highlighting the bad side of overseas aid, as well as the good would restore the balance.

There is another issue for overseas charities that few like to talk about. Earlier this year nfpSynergy looked at the impact of austerity on frontline charities, and it’s clear that charities delivering services at the grassroots across of the UK, are being badly hit by local and central government funding cuts.

Can anybody explain why the overseas aid budget should be ring fenced, when the money that goes to the impoverished and the poor in this country, and those that support them, is not? I realise nobody talks about it, but I wonder how many potential donors think it. Until overseas charities can answer that question, donations from those who care about poverty and injustice may well direct their generosity to UK causes over the next decade. 

Joe Saxton