“You’re wasting your time mate,” that’s what I get told. “These people… I mean, these countries… They never change. It’s been like that for years and years. You must have seen them? The adverts, on the TV, all the time. They’ve been like that for years. You’ll never change that.” I’ve had this conversation, or a variation of it, so many times over the last three years that I can’t ignore it anymore.
A decade ago, I worked at the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and before I got this job, I was lucky enough to live in Kenya and work in nine different southern and East African countries. These days, I spend my time talking to people in small towns across England about why they do or don’t support UK aid. And, although everyone is different, there are clearly recurrent themes in the conversation about foreign aid.
I wasn’t naïve, the Aid Attitude Tracker gave me the data to show what to expect and data from the Development Engagement Lab has kept me up to date, using their fantastic methodology of annual surveys of 8,000-person nationally representative samples. But my team and I have been using a different methodology known as ‘Deep Canvasing,’ that requires a 10 minute conversation, pioneered in America by campaigners for LGBTQI+ rights. And three years in, we’re getting close to having had almost 8,000 of these conversations.
We don’t ask the same questions every time. We don’t listen neutrally and record the answers. Instead we use the Heartwired approach of ‘Adjacent Possibilities’ and we steer, and even lead, the conversation. We don’t convince everyone because often we’re not trying to. Rather, we’re seeking to prompt a reconsideration, by meeting people where they are.
Waste? Corruption? Elsewhere I’ve written about how you shouldn’t defend the indefensible.
“These people, I mean, these countries, they’ll never change.” People who say this appeal to the fact that you must have seen “the adverts.”
Now think about the last time you changed your mind about something. Did it happen because someone told you that you were wrong? No. It happened when someone told you that you were right. Did you change your mind to adopt a unique position or an opinion that no one that you know actually holds? No. You changed your mind to join other people like you.
The most frequent conversation we have, starts with someone telling us that they don’t agree because “charity begins at home.” Often, they apologise before they say it. “I’m sorry, but I just think that…”. Or it comes out like “But what about people round here?” or “We’ve got enough on our plate with our own problems” or “Yes, I do agree with that, but only once we’ve got our own house in order and sorted out our issues in this country first.” Often, they touch their chest, near their heart, to show sorrow or signal a desire for forgiveness.
But as well as being the most frequent conversation, this is also the easiest. Perhaps because we are now so used to having it. But it does take 10 minutes. We start by telling them they are right: “yes, 100%.” We explain that we agree with them by explicitly acknowledging - and verbally reinforcing - their local concern: homelessness, food banks, the NHS, crime, the decline of the high street, and most recently, Covid. We try and mirror their language at this stage. Often, they look surprised. Sometimes shocked. And in that moment, they usually decide to explore this counter-intuitive idea and stick around for a conversation. Their body language becomes less rigid and they settle in for a chat.
By being explicit about what the evidence says about a race to the bottom in fundraising, we can agree to raise our game together.
Ten minutes later, around nine out of ten have agreed to reconsider. They agree that we can do both. That as the fifth richest country in the world we don’t have to choose between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and that it’s right that we pay our fair share (we always call 0.7% “less than one percent”). Together we find the common ground that “charity begins at home but it shouldn’t end there.”
So what’s the hardest conversation? Well people who don’t care about other people (which DEL & YouGov can identify using a Schwartz analysis of the representative data) won’t have a conversation. They make their excuses and walk on. But this isn’t the hardest conversation. No, the hardest conversation is the one about “the adverts.”
I’ve had these conversations from rural North Yorkshire to the outskirts of Portsmouth. I’ve had it in small town Surrey and market towns in Norfolk. And hardly anyone who objects to UK aid does so on the basis of their lived experience of a developing world country. One guy told me he knew because he had been to Sudan in the 1980s. Another, knew because he’d seen it in ‘Rhodesia’. Just two men, out of thousands of people. But the data shows that these anecdotal encounters are representative. A tiny proportion of people in Britain travel to the developing world.
“These people, I mean, these countries, they’ll never change.” People who say this don’t ask you if you’ve seen for yourself. They appeal to the fact that you must have seen “the adverts,” because they are on TV “all the time,” and they’ve been showing the same thing “for years.” When I ask “which ones?” or “what do they show?” they mention kids. Sometimes kids fetching dirty water, sometimes hungry kids, sometimes kids not in school, but always kids. And for decades: generations of kids.
I’ve talked to NGOs about this but I can’t ignore it anymore. Now the DEL have agreed to work with the UK aid sector to design a research "sandbox" project to measure the impact of what I increasingly feel is the price we pay for the money we raise. DEL are going to test “the adverts” and measure the impact they are having both on people who respond by giving £3 a month but also the 99% of people that see the adverts but don’t pick up the phone. This new evidence base will help us to focus our attention on the pressing task of "growing the market" for international development and help us make the most of healthy competition between brands. By being explicit about what the evidence says about a race to the bottom in fundraising, we can agree to raise our game together. We should have results in early 2021. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening.
Richard Darlington is Director of the Campaign to defend aid and development and a former Special Adviser at DFID He is @RDarlo on Twitter
For more tips on talking to the public during Covid-19, check out this long-read: https://www.globaldashboard.org/2020/03/30/12-rulesforthinkinggloballyduringcovd19/