Skip to content

FCDO Minister calls for Alliance members to help turn around public opinion

The Alliance was delighted to host a round table with the UK Minister for International Development and Africa, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP in early December. Appointed to the role just six weeks before, we were pleased that a visit to meet the Scottish global sustainable development community was high on the Minister’s agenda. As you might expect, given the current context, members were keen to talk about funding issues with the Minister, but he also had a call to action for us… 

Humbling and fortunate

The Minister opened the meeting by explaining that in the UK, 50% of the public think that none of the international development budget should go overseas. Instead they think it should be spent on domestic priorities, our hospitals and schools. This 50% think that charity begins at home. The other 50% also believe that charity begins at home, but that it doesn’t stop there. There are varying degrees of passion within this group; some see development as a way to resolve global conflicts, others support specific themes or areas. 

The Minister said he felt humbled and fortunate to get a second crack at the international development portfolio, and this time around he really wants to tackle public opinion and shift the 50% up a gear. 

The reason why governments and politicians can push development down the agenda, and reduce budgets, is because we haven’t moved the dial of public opinion. Why is it that something we all believe so passionately in is not echoed by the British public?  

He pointed to times in the past when the dial had been pushed up. The Make Poverty History campaign helped to do this. Large scale international conferences addressing issues such as vaccinations or family planning helped to drive public support. In the Minister’s previous time in the role, support from the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, helped to improve public opinion, and some success was achieved, particularly with women and those under 30. 

The Minister called for Alliance members to share ideas of how we can increase public support of development spending. 

SDGs as a hook

Michael Beresford from Christian Engineers in Development, pointed out that the UK has lost its role as a leader of overseas development, and has lost its focus on the Sustainable Development Goals. He felt the SDGs provided a great hook for the public, sharing common goals but understanding that the UK is so much better off than the rest of the world. By retaining this focus and returning to a leadership position, we may bring the public with us. 

The Minister agreed with this observation and turned to government structures as the problem and solution. He fought against the ‘vapourising of the Department for International Development’, but nevertheless that is the current situation. Some aspects of the merger are positive, linking the short term thinking of foreign policy with the longer term development approach. In Somalia, for example, there are a plethora of requirements which will not only make life different for women, girls and society there, but also for us here in Britain. He felt there are structural changes to the department which would tighten things up further, and help with the UK’s leadership role. He spoke more on this to the International Development Committee the next day. 

Linking domestic and international priorities

Frances Guy, from the Alliance, raised the importance of a joined up approach – being coherent about domestic and international policy which speaks to the example given in Somalia. The public need to understand that we will all live in a better place if we take a more holistic and joined up approach to decision making. 

Where does the money go?

Jamie Livingstone from Oxfam felt that the Scottish Government’s commitment to international development spending helps to build the public case for the work of the sector here. However, currently money spent by the Scottish Government on development is then subtracted from the UK’s ODA budget. So when Scotland spend more, the UK spends less. In order to gain public support in Scotland, we really need to be showing that this funding is new and additional, growing ‘the pie’ not just picking from the UK’s existing pie. 

The Minister disputed this, saying that the ODA budget is not an exact science, and just because this money is scored as ODA it doesn’t mean it is subtracted from the UK’s efforts.  

Another point on spending was made by Alistair Dutton from SCIAF. He felt that transparency and quality of UK aid has dropped and asked how this will be addressed. 

The Minister acknowledged this and is setting up a star chamber on ODA to stop muddled and lower quality aspects of the ODA budget. Bad spending is a problem for public perception and the Minister is keen to improve quality of spending and acknowledge when things go wrong.  

Mutuality of interest

Jo Vallis from Friends of Chitambo returned to the Minister’s earlier point about whether charity begins or ends at home. She feels the public need to understand that development is not about charity or help, but safety in the world. We’ve gained a huge amount from being in other parts of the world, and it’s about us giving back and working together. 

The Minister strongly agreed. He said British development policy is about the exercise of soft power and partnership. Every penny is spent in the British national interest as well as those we are partnering with, because making a world that is more prosperous, less conflict-ridden and safer makes us in the UK safer too. It’s entirely mutuality of interest and not the rich world doing things to the poor world. He agreed that this is an important point to get across to the public.  

Shifting the dial

Clearly the task of turning round public opinion will not be an easy one. Alliance members pointed out the huge role the government has in driving this, from leading on the SDGs, adopting policy coherence, ensuring transparent and quality aid, and reinforcing an equitable partnerships approach. We look forward to further dialogue with the Minister and supporting both government and our members in driving the change in public opinion.  

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news, events, resources and funding updates.

Sign up now