Charity comms chiefs are dramatically stepping up their efforts to promote overseas aid in response to growing hostility from politicians and the media.
Charities such as ActionAid and Cafod have been forced to revisit their PR tactics following recent media coverage and a renewed debate in Westminster about the Department for International Development’s budget.
ActionAid head of media Jane Moyo commented: ‘We’re having to work an awful lot harder to make the case for aid and development.’
Cafod head of media Damian McBride told PRWeek: ‘We can’t stay out of it or leave DfID to fend for itself.’
Last month, Defence Secretary Liam Fox was revealed to have written to Prime Minister David Cameron, challenging his plan to enshrine the government’s overseas aid spending targets in law.
Fox’s letter, which was leaked to The Times, sparked a wider debate with other Conservative MPs voicing anger at the decision to increase international aid budgets over the coming four years, at a time when spending on domestic priorities – including defence – is being cut.
Two weeks later, on 27 May, the Daily Mail ran a front page story highlighting UK spending on ‘foreign handouts’. The story quoted Conservative MP Philip Davies who said Britain must be ‘stark raving mad’ to give high sums to countries such as India.
The rightwing columnists Kelvin Mackenzie and Melanie Phillips have also launched fierce attacks on UK spending on overseas aid. Writing in the Daily Mail on 30 May, Phillips asserted: ‘Far from saving lives, aid is too often used to end many lives, with warlords stealing it to enable them to slaughter more people.’
McBride gets stuck in
McBride recently started at Cafod (Catholic Agency For Overseas Development) – two years after resigning as Gordon Brown’s media handler in Downing Street.
The charity’s pro-active approach to the aid debate has included placing articles by church leaders from the communities that receive aid, enabling them to emphasise the difference it is making to people on the ground. Most recently, Bishop Deng from South Sudan wrote a piece that was featured on The Guardian website.
McBride said of the renewed media focus on aid: ‘That debate is vital for our wider objectives so we can't stay out of it or leave DfID to fend for itself.
'And in many ways, that debate is an opportunity for us to get out and pro-actively make a case that the mainstream media wouldn’t always be interested in: firstly, that aid works, saves lives and has a huge impact on Britain’s influence around the world; and second, that campaigning for economic justice is just as important and provides the real long-term solutions.'
The former special adviser added: ‘It’s essential we have the confidence to make that case, and so we are getting stuck into that debate, both by robust rebuttal of some of the myths around aid and by pro-actively presenting the counter-arguments.’
ActionAid has also looked to tell positive stories of aid at the same time as rebutting negative coverage.
The international development charity responded to the Daily Mail story by using social media to encourage supporters to comment under the article. A tweet by the charity stated: ‘@MailOnline having a poke at aid. We disagree with them. If you agree with us, great if you could comment under article.’
Moyo said of her organisation's tactics: ‘It’s about getting people commenting, it’s talking to journalists whenever we can, it’s being pro-active telling stories of aid and it’s really making our website work hard. It’s really using all those PR tools – working with celebrities to tell the story of aid…. It’s having co-ordinated hard-hitting messaging backed up by facts and stats and stories.’
She added: ‘We’re having to work an awful lot harder to make the case for aid and development. You could argue it’s been coming for a long time. We had that incredible high point of Make Poverty History when people said "yes we want to make a difference".
'But government spending is now under scrutiny and when you have something that’s ring-fenced people need to be assured it’s a good thing. It’s not only good for people in recipient countries, and not only about having moral imperative but it’s also good for Britain as well and you’ve got to make that argument.’
Development charities’ lobbying efforts have also been focused on making the case for overseas aid in political circles. A mass lobby of parliament is being planned by a number of charities on 9 June, while their government relations advisers target opinion formers in Whitehall and Westminster.
ActionAid government relations adviser Jonathan Tench said: ‘With scrutiny over the government’s austerity drive intensifying, and as one of only two areas of government spending to be ring fenced, the UK’s spending on aid is increasingly coming under the spotlight. Press headlines scream about government priorities. But the front-page splashes from the Times and Mail, and aid critics in parliament, miss the crucial point: aid works.
'ActionAid believes the government is doing the right thing. UK aid money is making a real difference in the fight against global poverty – and doing this is in the UK’s long-term strategic interest. Yet, attention on aid is good. Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has prioritised effectiveness and transparency, precisely so that UK taxpayers and aid recipients can see how aid works.
‘There is much to be proud of. Over the last decade, 33 million extra children are in school and the people receiving life-saving HIV treatment has increased tenfold. This is because of aid. The greatest myth is that aid causes corruption when in fact UK money is rooting out corrupt officials.’
The PR and lobbying efforts of development charities were rewarded last week when Cameron launched a scorching defence of British aid spending.
The Prime Minister said: ‘These countries that are broken, if we don't invest in them before they become broken, then we end up with the problems, we end up paying the price of the terrorism, of the crime, the mass migration, the environmental devastation.’
The impassioned response came as Britain committed £110 million over the next four years to help ensure the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East succeed.
The new prime ministers of Tunisia and Egypt were both in France last week appealing for £10 billion in aid from the international community to help bolster their newly democratised nations. As Cameron spoke, the UK was the only major power to commit new money to the aid package.
OECD figures show that, in 2010, the UK gave the second largest overall amount of aid money of any country, at $13.76 billion. This was behind the USA which gave $30.15 billion.
In terms of aid relative to Gross National Income, the UK comes in at seven in the international rankings at 0.56 per cent. Norway tops the table with 1.1 per cent of GNI going on international aid, while the next major economy to the UK is France, at 0.5 per cent.
The fullfact.org blog states: 'While the UK is the most generous G8 economy in international aid relative to GNI, it does not give the most aid of any country in the world, neither relative to GNI or in absolute terms.'