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Amid a tidal wave of austerity, the UK aid narrative should be one of substance over sum

  • Opinion

By Maxine Betteridge-Moes, MA Media in Development 

The year 2020 dealt two serious blows to the UK aid industry. First was Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s June announcement of a merger between the Department for International Development (DfID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which was widely condemned by aid officials for draining the resources of an agency ranked the most accountable aid donor in the world. 

Next came Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement in November that the government will cut its aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income in 2021. The fiscal strategy behind these decisions was justified under the guise of securing Britain’s ‘national interests’ in light of the economic and social crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. 

How an individual reacts to this news, considering it either sensible or nonsensical, can largely be attributed to a person’s political affiliation and media consumption. For example, the conservative tabloid the Daily Mail ran an op-ed titled: ‘Good riddance to Foreign Aid’s self-serving Department for International Narcissists.’ The writer, Ian Birrell, argues for wider reform of the sector despite ‘predictable protests from charity chiefs and fat-cat aid consultants fearful that their chunky salaries might now be curtailed.’ 

On the other end of the political news spectrum, the left-wing Guardian published the op-ed: ‘Cutting UK overseas aid in the name of Covid fiscal prudence is pure nonsense.’ Economics editor Larry Elliott argues that the UK has enjoyed real global clout in development thanks in part to a separate and well-resourced DfID that has now been ‘tossed away in acts of wilful political vandalism.’

 ‘While progressives and conservatives alike tend to agree on the concept of development, media coverage often asserts that disagreement over foreign aid all boils down to budget.’

These conflicting viewpoints in two of England’s biggest news outlets illustrate a broader trend of aid as a partisan issue. While progressives and conservatives alike tend to agree on the concepts of development, media coverage often asserts that disagreement over foreign aid all boils down to budget. As Pablo Yanguas points out in his book ‘Why We Lie About Aid,’ money, by itself, means nothing when it comes to solving the challenges of development. 

‘You could have a smaller budget and still have the same impact if you use it better,’ he told me. ‘There will be a disruption effect for sure, however I do think it’s an opportunity to rethink whether the equation money equals impact holds true or not.’ Another important point is that despite knowing little about how foreign aid actually works, the British public is easily swayed by exaggerated headlines and over simplistic narratives about the industry. Even in these times of austerity, the media narrative of UK aid should be less about the money and more about the impact. 

There are a number of ways the aid sector and the media can achieve this in the short, medium, and long terms. Journalist Molly Anders reported on several of them in her excellent series for Devex about how media coverage affects aid work. In the short term, charities need to acknowledge wrongdoing quickly and should address organizational or sector-wide issues in these responses to minimize a feeding frenzy of damaging news cycles. 

Context is also key in crisis response and in the news cycle. The UK aid budget gets disproportionate media attention, with little analysis around the purpose of interventions such as gender empowerment, agricultural innovation, and anti-corruption, how much these interventions cost, and whether they are working. This context will in turn shape long term efforts to tell stories about aid through more relevant storytellers. 

This involves more coverage of staff on-the-ground, beneficiaries, and other partners that are more relatable and can comment directly on the work being done. As Yanguas explained to me, there needs to be a distinction in coverage between humanitarian work such as crisis and disaster response, and interventions that accelerate development that is already taking place. 

The UK prides itself on its global reputation as a leader in international development. That reputation will be tested later this year when the government hosts the COP-26 and G-7 summits, but budget and reputation are not all that matters. If we are to hold the aid industry and the government to account in these times of unprecedented need and widespread misinformation, it’s more important than ever for the media to provide an honest, complex, and nuanced narrative of the sector that is, above all, concerned with substance over sum.

Photo caption: Last year, the government announced a merger within the UK aid sector and a £2.9bn budget cut (Credit: UK MOD Crown Copyright 2020).

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