Research Case Study

Impact: Shaping public views on foreign aid

Winner: Celebrating Excellence in Research and Impact Awards 2021 - Best UK Public Policy

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portrait photo of Prof Robert Johns

Essex-driven research co-designed with the Department for International Development (DFID) looked at which arguments did most to persuade the British public that giving foreign aid could be in the national interest. The findings were used to refocus policy communications and contributed to reshaping the department’s communication strategy.  Much of DFID’s work transferred over to the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office from September 2020, but the impact is ongoing. The national interest agenda remains prominent in UK Aid communications – indeed, that agenda was a driving motivation behind the merger.

The challenge

Can the public be persuaded that foreign aid serves national interests?

Overseas aid can change the lives of the world’s poorest, but governments around the world struggle to win support for their policies from sceptical publics.

One reason the British government has refocused its justification for foreign aid policy from overseas needs to national interests is to win over a reluctant domestic audience. DFID wanted to know whether this was working. Were their communications convincing the public that aid projects were serving British interests? And could other forms of messaging work better?

What we did

The project was based on a series of survey experiments which tested existing and potential new DFID communications to identify whether members of the public can be convinced that giving aid pays off at home.

This survey experiment method, in which people are randomly allocated to different foreign policy scenarios or persuasive messages, had been the basis for earlier research which underpinned this project. Professor Johns and Professor Graeme Davies (University of York) – who had been PhD students together in Essex’s Department of Government – had used it in a major ESRC-funded study of British foreign policy attitudes.

That study had also addressed DFID’s main concern directly, one question asking: “Some people say that Britain's foreign aid should simply be distributed to the countries which are most in need of help. Others say that we should put our own national interests first when deciding how to distribute foreign aid in the developing world. Which best represents your view?”

As that government agenda gathered momentum, the research and impact team – now joined by aid expert, Professor Simon Lightfoot – was able to repeat the question in 2015 and published a blog post based on the new results.

In both surveys, the question revealed mixed opinions but a clear skew towards national interests. For an Essex workshop in 2016 which was attended by members of DFID’s communication team, Professor Johns analysed responses to the need-interests question in more depth. He highlighted that those prioritising ‘interests’ were more sceptical about aid in general, questioning whether a national-interests approach really would boost public support.

As the collaboration took shape, DFID specified broad narratives they wished to explore further (economic interests, global leadership, health security, and a general assertion that aid is in the national interest). The research team then incorporated those narratives into survey experiments to test public reactions. The surveys yielded a wide range of findings which were condensed into four core insights:

  1. Specific projects are both more popular than aid in general and are more likely to convince British citizens that aid is in the national interest.
  2. Mentioning the level of expenditure is counter-productive, eroding support for aid even when justified in terms of national interests.
  3. Different audiences responded to different security threats:
    a) overall, health security was the arena most likely to convince people of a national interest case for aid;
    b) among those more sceptical about aid, national and border security were more persuasive concerns.
  4. General messages beat specific claims when talking about the domestic gains from aid. Specific predictions were not thought credible, partly because the causal chains are often very complex. For example, investment in infrastructure in Ethiopia creates jobs and wealth on the ground there, which boosts export opportunities for British firms, which can create jobs in the UK – but the public were sceptical when told exactly how many British jobs would be created.

This co-produced, jointly undertaken work was partly supported by the University’s ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

 What we changed

Professor Johns and his team presented a series of research findings to DFID’s Head of Strategy and Insight and the wider Communications team. These were used to update DFID’s communications guidelines and are evidenced in examples of Ministerial and Departmental social and print media messaging.

As summarised by a Communications Insight and Evaluations Adviser, the four core insights from the research provided representative-sample confirmation of indications they had from focus groups as well as providing new insights. All four fed into the Department’s communications practice.

Research insights were used by DFID to revise and update its guidance on communicating aid in the national interest.

The refreshed guidance, particularly the core insights, were used in writing Ministerial and Department communications.

In particular, insights from the research were used in social media posts and videos for a series ‘100 Ways Aid Works’. These videos were circulated via a Government Twitter account with close to half a million followers. This included relevant players within the aid policy community as well as the wider public. the communications strategy also included adverts and placed stories in high-circulation national newspapers.

Overall, the project informed and improved the way that government talked about aid and the national interest. Its insights reached beyond DFID into other aid-spending departments – including the Foreign Office, into which DFID was later folded. It is rare for academic insights to be injected so directly into government communications, and to have such reach.