Was cutting the aid budget the right decision? Evidence from two surveys

Divya Manocha

Jul 12, 2021

Was cutting the aid budget the right decision? Evidence from two surveys

The UK government has announced will move forward with cutting the aid budget from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, amounting to £4 billion. But what do the public think of the cuts?

Even just over a month after the decision, the cut to the UK aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI) has impacted development organisations delivering aid and other programmes. With high-level resignations and a reduction in the government’s and NGOs’ ability to support aid programmes, the £4 billion cut adds insult to injury for overseas development organisations already stretched thin by the pandemic.

To justify this cut, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak claimed that maintaining an aid allocation of 0.7% of gross national income would be “difficult to justify to the British people” during a pandemic. Several months on since the announcement, we asked the British people what they think about the UK’s budget allocation towards overseas aid. We asked this question two different ways, in two different surveys. One examined the public’s attitude toward the government’s proposed cut while also assessing current public knowledge about the amount spent on aid. The other survey examined attitudes toward aid spending more broadly, without referring to the government’s proposed cut and by asking whether the public would opt to increase, decrease or maintain the current (pre-cut) budget. The polls were of comparable samples (1,500+ nationally-representative adult respondents) and similar timeframes (early-mid June 2021).

Let’s take a look at the first survey. When asked how much should be spent on aid, a large proportion chose a figure that’s higher than current or even proposed aid figures. Still, this survey also found that a majority of the British public (54%) believe the aid cut was the right decision. And, majority support for the aid cut persisted even after reminding respondents about the Conservative Party’s Manifesto promise to protect aid, cutting aid during the pandemic, and the impact on the UK’s global reputation. At the same time, this survey also found that a large proportion of the public (49%) want MPs to vote on whether the cuts are legitimate. These sentiments fell predictably along party lines, with Conservative supporters preferring not to have a Parliamentary vote and Labour and Lib Dem supporters in favour.

It’s important to note here that our research has shown that when you ask the public about proposed budget cuts, they tend to lean toward cutting. This is true even when the public have demonstrably overestimated current aid spending. In other words, people overestimate budget spending, opt to cut, and then when their misconceptions are corrected, still opt to cut, even if they’re cutting beyond what they just said should be spent.

The second poll, Survey Two, which looked at support for aid spending more broadly and doesn’t mention the government’s proposed cut, tells a different story. Using pre-cut figures (the new totals won’t be available until at least September according to the government), it asks, ‘Of its total budget of nearly £810 billion, the UK government currently allocates 1.7% or £14 billion to overseas aid to poor countries. Do you think the UK government should increase or decrease the amount of money it currently spends on overseas aid to poor countries?’

This poll found that 53% of the British public want to keep or increase current aid spending levels. This is an increase of 9% from the same survey in January 2021, and marks the dramatic end of a gradual, three-year decline in aid support in Great Britain. Unlike the first poll, this increase in support is bipartisan: Conservatives and Labour support increased at the same rate.

So, which poll is correct? By correct, of course we mean ‘accurately reflects the views of the British public.’ In short, both. The second poll, which found majority support for aid, certainly has a few advantages in terms of consistency: For example it has longitudinal validity, as we’ve been tracking answers to this question since 2019. Also, because it doesn’t mention the government’s proposed cut specifically, it’s less likely to suffer from the public’s aforementioned tendency to cut when presented with the opportunity to weigh in on proposals.

However, both polls reflect different aspects of the same prism of British public opinion on aid: The country is divided, and these results show that when framed in even a different way, respondents opinions change accordingly. When offered without such context, ideology and ‘groupthink’ tend to fall away a bit.

Survey One: The British Public on Aid Cuts

Taking a deeper dive into Survey One, as it tells an interesting story about the different frames used to defend aid. As mentioned, this survey found that a majority of the public believe that the aid cut is the right decision (54%), but that a significant number also believe a vote should be held to determine the decision’s legitimacy (49%). We also found that support for cuts and for a Parliamentary vote varies by party: Conservative voters are more likely to support aid cuts and would prefer to skip a vote on their legitimacy, while Labour and Lib-Dem voters are more likely to not support the cuts but favour a vote on the decision’s legitimacy. These findings come from a YouGov survey conducted from 4-7 June involving a nationally representative sample of 1,656 British adults.

Here, we randomly assigned respondents into one of four groups and provided each one with a different question-type. The baseline question asked whether they thought the £4 billion cut in the aid budget was the right decision, while the other three groups were asked the same question with additional context such as the aid cut’s implications during a pandemic on the UK’s global reputation and on the Conservative party’s promises. Our data show that on average, the number of British respondents who think the cuts were the right decision outweigh those who think it was the wrong decision by 35%.

Across all questions, significantly more respondents thought that the cut was the right rather than wrong decision, showing that none of the arguments we tested in an attempt to move public opinion were effective.

However, we also found a significant difference in support for the cuts across parties. On average, 84% of Conservative voters believe the cuts were the right decision, which is significantly higher than the proportion of Labour (32%) and Lib-Dem (27%) voters who felt the same way.

Respondents who voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election, and those who voted Leave in the EU referendum are more likely to think cutting aid was the right thing to do. Supporters of the cuts are more likely to be older, less likely to live in London or Scotland, and are more likely to live in the North East or Wales.

A final question in our study looked at public views on holding a vote about the aid cuts in Parliament. Allocating 0.7% of GNI towards aid became law in 2015. Consequently, some claim that the cut is unlawful and that a Parliamentary vote must be held to determine the cut’s legitimacy. Conservative ‘rebels’ including former DFID secretary Andrew Mitchell are challenging the cut’s legitimacy on these grounds. Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle allowed an emergency debate on the issue “to give this House the due respect it deserves…the government should be accountable here.”

We found that 49% of respondents preferred holding a vote, compared to 29% who did not (and 22% who did not know or were undecided). Interestingly, Conservative voters were significantly less in favour of holding a vote, with only 31% of them saying one should take place. The figures are much higher for Labour (75%) and Lib-Dems (73%), a very large majority of which wants to see the vote happen. This reflects our finding about preferences for aid cuts: There are differences across parties even when it comes to whether a Parliamentary vote should be held about the legitimacy of the aid cuts.

Our analysis finds that the British public is nearly as supportive of the aid cuts as it is to demand a vote on the decision’s legitimacy. Conservative voters are more inclined to support the cuts and would prefer to avoid a vote on the decision. In other words, Conservative voters’ views line up with the government’s decision, while Labour and Lib-Dem voters see it differently.

What can we learn?

The government claims that the current budget cut is temporary, though a date for the cuts’ reversal has not been set. The responsibility to campaign remains on organisations and decisionmakers, but if we can glean anything from these two polls it’s that political framing matters, and that once people have backed into their political corner, it can be difficult to pry them out.

Written by

Divya Manocha

Divya Manocha

Divya Manocha is a Research Assistant at the Development Engagement Lab. She is a student at University College London and is entering the final year of her degree programme, Social Sciences with Data Science. Divya is also one of 25 LEDE Fellows at the Solutions Journalism Network, where she runs solutions journalism workshops for university and high school students from around the world.

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