The People’s Aid

Back in the day, before Britain was run by the David Cameron-led coalition, many of us assumed that, under the weight of the public spending axe, a Conservative government would wriggle out of its commitment to keep upping the UK government’s aid budget to 0.7% of national income. It seemed like a no-brainer that increasing spending on people who aren’t UK taxpayers when Brits are seeing their own services cut was just not going to wash politically. Well, we were wrong (so far).

Whether it was the influence of the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, Mr Cameron’s wish to avoid the ‘nasty party’ monicker for his party, or (perish the thought) because even Tories can care about global poverty, is not clear. What is certain, however, is that Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, will have his work cut out spending all this new cash if, at the same time, he is to fulfill his promise to deliver results and thereby convince voters that this is, indeed, money well spent.

Unfortunately for Mr Mitchell, according to his Department’s own research, the public is getting weary of aid: when asked in February 2010 (before the election and before the cuts) whether they supported more government aid only 35% of respondents said ‘yes’, down from nearly 50% only 18 months previously. Worse, the number who thought that aid was ‘pointless’ because of corruption had shot up by thirteen percentage points over the same period. Something clearly needs to be done to stop aid being a vote-loser.

When in opposition, one of Mr Mitchell’s big ideas was to run a scheme called ‘My Aid’, whereby citizens’ votes on a shortlist of projects would determine where a small amount of the aid budget would go. Though we liked the spirit of the idea, at the time we commented that, frankly, it sucked. Better,  we said, to use the cash to finance a “match-funding” scheme for citizens’ own donations, on the grounds that this could catalyse more funding for development (the match money acting as a prompt to actually give, rather than just think about it) and get people thinking more seriously about where best the money should be spent. So we are chuffed to see that Mr Mitchell’s department has just launched a consultation on a scheme that is along the lines of what we proposed.

Aid technocrats will no doubt bristle at such populism (the development community are a terribly snobbish lot*). Yet the public is increasingly empowered by information and analysis to understand these issues and make informed choices – what we call ‘mass philanthrocapitalism’. Our hope is that organisations like New Philanthropy Capital, GlobalGiving, seethedifference, and the media will step up to help crowdsource more effective aid spending.

*Michael worked at DFID for 12 years.