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Are Australian views about aid changing?

Wood   Delivering-ventilators-to-Indonesia
Delivering ventilators to Indonesia in July 2021 (Timothy Tobing, Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade)

| DevPolicy Blog

CANBERRA - Less than 1% of Australian government spending is devoted to aid.

Aid’s effects are felt in other countries, and its impacts are rarely directly noticeable to Australians.

Australians have views about foreign aid nonetheless. At times, it receives a surprising amount of public attention.

Despite this, systematic study of the attitudes of Australians to aid has been scarce.

Nearly a decade ago, the Development Policy Centre set out to change this.

In a recently released discussion paper, I summarised what we have learnt. This article reports on some of the key findings.

I start the paper by examining whether public opinion about aid really matters.

Although the Australian public has views about aid, it’s always possible that politicians and other decision-makers simply ignore these views.

Public opinion clearly isn’t the sole determinant of high-level decisions about aid.

For example, politicians own beliefs also matter, as demonstrated by the contrasting fortunes of aid under Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott.

In the paper I outline both quantitative and qualitative evidence from Australia that points to public opinion playing a role in influencing high-level decisions about aid.

Wood views on Aust aid volume over time
Views over time on volume of Australian aid

The quantitative evidence comes from a 2017 advocacy campaign.

In the campaign, aid advocates tried to meet all of the MPs and senators in Australia’s parliament, and persuade them of the benefits of aid.

I gathered and analysed data from this exercise. This showed that MPs from electorates where public support for aid was higher were more likely to meet with advocates and more supportive in meetings.

The relationships between public support, MP willingness to meet and MP supportiveness aren’t perfect, but they are clear and statistically significant.

Of course, simple bivariate correlation doesn’t conclusively demonstrate that public opinion influences MPs’ attitudes to aid. However, in the paper I show the relationship mostly continues to exist when sensible control variables are included.

Even then, the relationships are only correlations, not conclusive evidence of cause and effect.

But qualitative evidence that politicians consider public attitudes also exists.

The best can be found in excellent research conducted in 2020 by Benjamin Day and Tamas Wells.

Day and Wells interviewed Australian politicians about aid and described what they hear:

“Fear of public backlash [against increasing aid] from the Australian public featured prominently in all interviews often as the first response to an open question about the pandemic and Australian aid.”

Public opinion isn’t the sole determinant of major decisions about aid, but decision-makers do pay heed to it.

If public opinion matters, the persistently bad news for aid supporters has been that between 2011 and 2019 a majority of Australians thought Australia gave too much aid.

However, from 2019, attitudes started to change. The share of Australians who thought their country gave too much aid shrank, and more people thought Australia didn’t give enough aid.

In the paper, I look at why attitudes have changed in recent years and my conclusion is that the main reason for the change is probably Covid-19.

One reason is timing. Covid-19 was the most obvious global change between 2019 and 2020 when attitudes to aid first started to shift.

And when I looked at Google Trends data, the most plausible alternative explanation – China’s presence in the Pacific – didn’t fit.

China’s role in the Pacific was a story prior to the increase in public support for aid, and it only became a major story in Australia after support for aid had started to rise.

Wood public opinion
Surveyed Australian public views on aid spending

Another reason for thinking Covid-19 is the main driver of more positive attitudes to aid is the results of survey experiments that I summarise in the paper.

In one experiment, we told a group of people about a large Australian aid-funded initiative focused on tackling infectious diseases.

This led to a substantial increase in support for aid compared to people who weren’t told about the initiative.

The experiment took place before Covid-19 and was based on the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security.

But it showed how getting people thinking about global health issues can increase support for aid.

Also, in the paper I discuss two other survey experiments we ran focused specifically on Covid-19.

These experiments found that discussion of Covid-19 led to a fall in the belief that Australia gives too much aid.

There’s a lot more in the paper, including other topics such as what Australians think the purpose of aid should be.

It’s written for a non-technical audience, but also contains full details on methods and findings for interested social scientists.

If you want a simple take-home point from our eight years of work, it is that public opinion matters. It influences high-level policy decisions about aid.

For a long time many Australians had fairly hostile attitudes to aid. However, attitudes can change.

Indeed, in recent years attitudes have changed, probably because of the pandemic, and hostility to aid has been falling.

Link here for the complete paper ‘Aid and the public in Australia: key findings from Development Policy Centre research

Terence Wood is a research fellow at the Development Policy Centre of the Australian National University. His research focuses on Australian and New Zealand aid and also political governance in Western Melanesia. The research discussed here was undertaken with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The views are those of the author only


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Paul Oates

People usually find it very hard to think about things that don't involve them personally. Such is the case with overseas aid.

There are many issues involving the amount of overseas aid made available by Australia but the essence of the issue is really in assessing what benefits are being achieved by the aid given.

Those of us who have front line experience, albeit dated, know how hard it is to evaluate what starts as a generous program and what ends up at the grass roots and identifiable as beneficial.

The accusation 'boomerang aid' rings out in the odd moribund hall of DFAT in Canberra and highlights the disconnection between the giver and the designated receiver who ends up deriving much of the aid from associates of the giver.

Since this article doesn't go into that aspect, it's hard to comment further.

We've discussed this aspect many times previously on this website without effectively nailing the solutions to the walls of the halls of those who actually manage the programs.

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