The UK has a great story to tell on international development. Since 2013 we’ve been one of a tiny handful of countries that spend over 0.7% of our Gross National Income (GNI) on aid (1), hitting a UN target set for the world’s donor nations half a century ago. Only the USA provides more development funding than the UK’s £12.2bn – and America’s commitment is a mere 0.2% of GNI. Britain’s reputation for generosity and high-quality aid programmes create enormous goodwill in the developing world, helping to stabilise areas of conflict and reinforce relationships.
In an era when the government is squeezing public spending, some argue that “charity begins at home” and oppose overseas aid. UKIP’s 2015 election manifesto (2) called for the abolition of DFID and a two-thirds cut in aid spending. Elements within the Conservative Party are also highly sceptical of foreign aid. And the Mail on Sunday has championed a petition (3) calling for government to abandon the 0.7% target, gathering over 230,000 signatures, prompting a Parliamentary debate.
Because the public is not closely engaged in the Department for International Development work, the department is short of defenders when critics attack its management of funds or argue that aid weakens local economies. And as DFID’s spending keeps on climbing – to £14.1bn by 2020, according to an IFS forecast – these tensions are likely to grow, especially in a time of austerity when other core public services like the NHS and the police are straining due to lack of public funding.
Yet DFID’s work is full of powerful human stories, and tales of triumph in the face of adversity; of people striving to better themselves and their communities. This is raw material as vivid and compelling as that of any TV drama. Many of DFID’s frontline operations would fascinate the British public, just as Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E regularly pulls in two million viewers to observe a domestic public service. And perhaps there’s an opportunity here to build public understanding of DFID’s work – demonstrating its value and humanising its recipients – and to give the public an active role in that work.