International cooperation is necessary for tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes support for more-affected countries within Europe, but also and especially developing countries. Given the crisis at home and the high costs of dealing with the pandemic and its consequences, does the population of Germany support such solidarity-based development cooperation (DC)? Or do worries stemming from the pandemic endanger support for development cooperation?
COVID-19 poses a major challenge for all countries. However, due to weak healthcare systems, poor hygienic conditions and often close cohabitation, developing countries are at special risk of rapid spread of COVID-19 and the resulting health ramifications. What’s more, the economic consequences of the pandemic are likely to be more severe in these countries. Not only does the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimate that almost 100 million jobs will be lost in developing countries, many people in the developing world work in the informal sector or rely on daily earnings and are already more vulnerable to economic shocks. In order to counter the effects of the pandemic, Germany, like other bilateral donors and multilateral organisations, has provided emergency medical and financial support to developing countries. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) launched an Emergency COVID-19 Support Programme of more than one billion euros.
There are two plausible scenarios of how the German public could react to the current situation with regard to DC. As German citizens are also affected by the consequences of the pandemic, in-group favouritism might lead to a decline of support for development cooperation. Then again, the pandemic does not stop at country borders and affects potentially all humans, which may facilitate international solidarity. Therefore, we set out to investigate (1) whether the population supports development policy measures in the context of the pandemic; and (2) whether concerns triggered by the pandemic threaten public support. We addressed these questions with survey items regarding international solidarity and development policy from the COSMO (Covid-19 Snapshot Monitoring) surveys conducted on 21/22 April, 19/20 May, and 09/10 June 2020.
Figure 1. Public opinion on development policy measures during the COVID-19 pandemic
Support for development policy measures, reservations regarding aid for refugees, economic assistance, and debt relief
Our analyses reveal that the population’s support for increased DC to tackle the pandemic remains at a consistently high level. In each of the surveys, around 44% of the respondents agreed with the statement “Germany should support developing countries with more money and know-how to help them cope with the COVID-19 situation and its consequences,” (see Figure 1, left). This is in line with the German public being more aware of global challenges because of COVID-19.
When looking at health concerns, there are indications that the pandemic could facilitate greater international solidarity.
About half of respondents supported commitment in the areas of food security, multilateral cooperation, and health (see Figure 1, right). More scepticism exists concerning interventions that aim to support the economy, protect refugees or – least preferred – provide debt relief for developing countries. It remains an open question whether this is due to people considering some interventions as more feasible than others or due to the fact that people simply do not support interventions that more directly imply financial commitments.
Perception of the pandemic and support for international solidarity
The pandemic is affecting people in different ways – health-wise, economically, psychologically and socially. Figure 2 highlights four channels of how the pandemic might influence citizens’ attitudes towards DC.
Health concerns: We observe that the greater the concern for the health of one’s family and friends or one’s own health, the greater the approval of increased DC measures.
Economic concerns: Economic concerns have an ambivalent effect on support for DC. Concerns about respondents’ own financial situation have a small negative effect on support for aid. On the other hand, concerns about German companies going bankrupt show a slightly positive effect.
Concerns about developing countries: The greater the concern or the perception that developing countries are particularly severely affected by the pandemic, the higher the approval of stronger measures to help developing countries.
Trust in government: The more respondents trust the German government, the stronger their support for DC measures during the pandemic.
Figure 2. Perception of the pandemic and support for increased DC measures during the pandemic
Note: Results of a pooled regression analysis of all three COSMO-waves. Unstandardized regression coefficients. Dependent variable: Scale 1–7; higher values indicate more support. Detailed results are available from the authors upon request.
Implications for the development cooperation community
Our results send an ambivalent signal to the DC community. On the one hand, the general public in Germany is in favour of a stronger development policy commitment during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, there are reservations when it comes to debt relief for developing countries as well as support for the economy and refugees in those countries.
As for now, the connection between the concerns triggered by the pandemic and the attitude towards DC do not indicate that the pandemic is undermining public support for DC. German citizen do not seem to perceive a clear trade-off between measures in Germany and support for developing countries. On the other hand, when looking at health concerns, there are indications that the pandemic could facilitate greater international solidarity. Possibly the pandemic increased empathy for the health issues faced by people living in developing countries.
However, a potential risk lies in declining trust in the government – especially if trust declines during the course of the pandemic. This may, for instance, be the case when lockdown orders are renewed. If trust declines, support for DC may decline, too.
Despite all the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic imposes on citizens, empathy for vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19 in developing countries may foster feelings of international connectedness. For the DC community, this implies that it is important to continue transparently communicating the situation in developing countries and suggesting reasonable interventions to address these challenges. The communication should facilitate trust in these actors by providing matter-of-fact answers that match the challenge at hand. However, some interventions – debt relief in particular – are not only disputed among the scientific community and challenging to effectively implement, but also more difficult to explain to the public.