There is one notable exception to the otherwise pervasive cuts being implemented across Whitehall. Next year, British overseas aid is set to rise from its current level of 0.56% of GNI to the internationally accepted target for industrialized countries of 0.7%, placing the UK among a select club of donor nations to reach a commitment first made in 1970. The target, originally set by the previous Labour government, featured in the manifestos of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives during the 2010 general election; the 'Coalition Agreement' pledged to enshrine it in law. But two years of economic stagnation and fiscal austerity have seen support decline within one side of the coalition. While the Liberal Democrats remain committed to the 0.7% target, it has been widely criticized within the conservative press while dissenting voices have emerged among Conservative MPs on the front and back benches.
This survey demonstrates that the UK public tends to overestimate the aid budget – the average estimate was £79 billion. This amount is a little more than education spending and just over 8% of total government expenditure – considerably more than the £8.5 billion actually spent. A significant overestimate – though not compared to the United States, where one recent survey found the average American estimated 27% of the federal budget was consumed by aid (in fact it is 1%). The median response, less skewed by extreme overestimates, was £20 billion.
However, the fact that most people imagine an inflated aid budget does not mean that informing the public of its actual size will build support for higher spending. When subsequently presented with the actual figure, the majority of respondents (61%) still felt the UK gives 'too much' aid, despite its being considerably less than most had imagined. On the question of how much is not 'too much', the most popular answer is 'about the same as Other wealthy countries' – currently about 0.46% of GNI. But most – 50% – believe the UK should give 'less' or 'none at all'. This view does not extend to opinion-formers, 68% of whom think the UK should give 'about the same' as other wealthy countries; only 21% think 'less' or 'none at all.'
The public has a good sense of how UK aid spending compares with that of other countries: people of all voting persuasions tend to think the UK is a more generous donor than West European countries such as France and Germany or other rich countries such as the US and Japan. They are right: in 2011, France and Germany gave 0.46% and 0.40% of GNI respectively, and the US and Japan only 0.20% and 0.18%.
Support for aid is closely aligned to voting intention. The belief that £8.5bn is 'too much' was least pronounced among Liberal Democrat voters (42%) and most pronounced among Conservative voters (76%). This divergence increases as the questions turn to how much aid the UK should give: 60% of Liberal Democrat voters selected 'about the same' as other wealthy countries, compared with 41% of Conservatives; 54% of Conservative voters and only 31% of Liberal Democrats believe it should be 'less' or 'none at all'. This divergence is less pronounced among opinion-formers, particularly Labour voters, who are uniformly more supportive of aid.
The widespread belief that the UK spends too much on aid presents an obvious challenge for Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development. He faces a tough fight to defend his rising budget while those of his cabinet colleagues shrink. Tellingly, the government has chosen not to legislate on the 0.7% target in the coming year, but quietly dropping it would be impossible: not only would it divide the coalition, it would draw serious criticism from development groups in the year the G8 returns to Britain for the first time since Gleneagles and the 'Make Poverty History' campaign in 2005. It would also be embarrassing for the prime minister, who will co-chair the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Agenda, tasked with identifying what should follow the Millennium Development Goals.
The question for the government then is how best to manage public perceptions as the spending increase is implemented. The survey provides some clues. Few people believe aid does much to serve Britain's interests around the world: it comes sixth in a list of eight channels of UK influence around the world. However, the survey indicates that the public could be persuaded otherwise. Overseas aid could arguably help achieve many of the objectives the public wishes to see prioritized within British foreign policy. Tackling poverty, inequality, unemployment and marginalization in poor countries could be one part of a counter-terrorism strategy – the public's number one priority. Stimulating economic development could help create new markets for the UK, promoting British trade overseas. Supporting agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa would not only address poverty and hunger in Africa, but boost and diversify global food production, enhancing the UK's food security in the process (ensuring the supply of vital resources such as oil, gas, food and water was ranked third). Add these to the still considerable cumulative support for primary aid objectives such as poverty reduction, combating disease, tackling climate change and improving governance and human rights, and the government has a clear agenda for aid that should garner broad support.
Mr Mitchell appears to have been on the right lines when he recently described UK aid as an investment in stability and future generations' prosperity. This 'enlightened self-interest' narrative is also more likely to resonate with his core constituencies, with Conservative voters more likely to believe that aid should be provided to promote British interests. Mr Mitchell will be wary of taking this line of argument much further, however: it is one thing to argue that reducing poverty and helping people in the developing world can serve British interests, but it is another to argue that the primary purpose of aid should be to serve British interests with all other objectives secondary to this. The British public believes the primary purpose of aid should be to reduce poverty and help people in the developing world. But on the international stage, an aid policy seen as self-serving will tarnish the UK's reputation as a leading donor – entirely defeating the purpose of the 0.7% commitment – and erode Britain's soft power in the process.