Overseas aid is often framed as a matter of national interest and security, but research consistently finds that the public views aid through a moral lens. In a 2022 DEL survey, we asked UK respondents a set of moral questions to better comprehend how moral attitudes impact support for overseas aid. In the survey, 73% of UK respondents agreed that helping people in need is the right thing to do. Of them, 57% already supported giving more money to overseas aid, while some also volunteered (5%) or donated (22%) to causes related to global poverty and development in the last 12 months. This is encouraging, but there is still a long way to go in the effort to increase aid support.
While Sceptical Moralists have concerns about corruption and the misuse of aid, they also believe that aid can save and improve lives.
To address this, we identified a potentially persuadable group, which we have aptly named the “Sceptical Moralists” (SM). The SMs want to help people in need but are not convinced about the morality of overseas aid. While they have concerns about corruption and the misuse of aid, they also believe that aid can save and improve lives. The Sceptical Moralists’ aid attitudes provide insight into how they can be persuaded to translate their moral values into support for aid.
The Sceptical Moralists subgroup accounts for a whopping 41% of the UK population (Fig 1). They agree that 'helping people in need is the right thing to do' but do not agree with the argument that 'countries like the UK should be giving more money to overseas aid because it’s morally the right thing to do.' Besides the Sceptical Moralists, 32% of the population are 'Altruists' who agree with both arguments, and 26% are 'Contrarians' who agree with neither. Out of the three groups, the Sceptical Moralists (41%) stand out as a possible target group: they could potentially be easier to sway in the direction of support for overseas aid than the Contrarians (26%), who flat-out disagree that helping people in need – let alone providing them with financial assistance – is the right thing to do.
So, who are these Sceptical Moralists, and how can we sway them to support aid? To understand this, we asked survey respondents how they perceived the costs and benefits of aid.
Looking at the SM group, we find they are particularly concerned about corruption and the misuse of aid funds in developing countries, even more so than the Contrarians. 69% of SMs agree that most overseas aid does not reach its intended recipients, while 72% believe it ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians. On the other hand, SMs are not overly worried about the UK’s ability to afford overseas aid, with 38% expressing concerns over affordability. Instead, the Sceptical Moralists’ scepticism is centred around the international aid system itself: while they want to help those in need, they question whether aid is the right solution. Subsequently, addressing and debunking the notion that aid money is abused or ineffectively spent could make Sceptical Moralists more confident in overseas aid as a tool to help people in need, appealing to their moral values.
Looking at benefits, it’s clear that to sway SMs towards greater support for aid, aid appeals should also focus on the ability of overseas aid to improve people’s lives.
The majority of Sceptical Moralists acknowledge the potential of aid to provide access to education, clean water, healthcare, and sanitation. In fact, both Sceptical Moralists and Altruists see the ability to improve people’s lives as the primary benefit of aid. In comparison, arguments focusing on UK national interests fall short of winning the support of SMs. For instance, only 23% agree that aid to poor countries strengthens Britain’s political influence, and only 13% think it helps promote national security. The SM group may not be as positively inclined towards aid as the Altruists, but the majority still see the benefit of providing for those in need - as is in line with their moral values. To activate further support for aid among SMs, aid appeals should emphasise the moral benefits of aid rather than arguments about the national interest.
Lastly, we looked at how SMs prefer overseas aid to be spent. All three groups – Contrarians, Sceptical Moralists, and Altruists – agree that providing access to clean water should be a prioritised area of government aid spending. Conversely, less urgent issues like welfare programs and infrastructure projects rank low on SMs’ priority list. Notably, the top five priority areas for all three groups revolve around access to basic resources like water, health and education services, disaster relief and agriculture. This is consistent with the view that improving lives through basic goods and services is the primary benefit of aid.
To rally the support of the Sceptical Moralists, aid campaigns should appeal to widely accepted moral values and highlight the potential of overseas aid to transform lives. Addressing concerns about aid corruption and emphasising the benefits of aid on a humanitarian level may also foster greater support for overseas aid among people who believe in helping those in need around the world.