British attitudes to flood relief versus foreign aid

British attitudes to flood relief versus foreign aid

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Thomas Scotto and Jason Reifler explore whether Britons prioritize spending on domestic flood relief over international aid.

This week, the United Kingdom is drying out from another round of extreme weather. Reports state that damages from recent flooding will surpass £1 billion. Although insurance companies will write checks and the Government will finance some relief efforts, many are asking why the Coalition did not prioritize funding for flood defences and spare related projects from the budget axe.[1] Backbench MPs, journalists, celebrities, and those affected by the floods repeatedly posed the question of why the British government was willing to spend tax dollars to fund foreign aid projects abroad while refusing to invest in critical flood protection and relief at home. [2]

The Cabinet has been steadfast in its decision to maintain and enhance spending on overseas aid during a time of austerity, even as polls repeatedly show such spending is unpopular and generates opposition from party activists and backbenchers. For the past three years, we have conducted surveys of the British public on matters related to international affairs and foreign policy. [3] On our November 2011 and February 2013 instruments, we asked whether a representative sample of respondents agreed or disagreed that “The UK should spend significantly more money on foreign aid.” A full 81 per cent disagreed in late 2011 and slightly fewer, 74 per cent, disagreed in early 2013.  Belying the notion that the public mood is fickle and random on foreign policy attitudes, our panel studies found this opposition to be incredibly stable—90 per cent of respondents who took issue with this statement the first time it was posed to them did so the second time around.

However, as political scientists Helen Milner and Dustin Tingley have noted, survey questions about foreign aid rarely put the amount of aid a nation provides and its purposes into context, an important omission given that citizens in developed nations almost always greatly overestimate the percentage of their nation’s budgets allotted to overseas relief efforts.[4] Indeed, we find attitudes appeared to soften when asked about more specific situations or when respondents were asked about the utility of spending to help the less fortunate outside of the country. In the February 2013 survey, only 40 per cent disagreed with the statement that “British aid to developing countries strengthens our political influence in the world.” In a July 2014 poll we conducted with YouGov, we also found that over 65 per cent of Britons supported “sending food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies to civilians in Syria,” with only 11 per cent registering opposition.

Bearing this in mind, we return to the question of whether Britons do in fact prioritize spending on domestic flood relief over aid and whether this prioritization changes when the aid is placed in context of commitments and values.  In collaboration with YouGov, we asked 1357 Britons the following question:

“This year, Britain has promised approximately £11 billion in foreign aid. Some people say that Britain should reallocate some of this money towards flood relief here at home. Thinking about this issue, would you support or oppose spending overseas aid money on British flood relief?”

As expected, respondents were overwhelmingly supportive of aid reallocation—nearly three in four (74 per cent) of those asked the question agreed, and 46 per cent did so strongly. However, this question simply asked about an apparently simple trade off, and things are rarely so easy when questions of international relations or international diplomacy are in play.

Would Britons become less supportive of reallocating overseas aid for domestic relief efforts when presented with a counter-argument for maintaining aid? To answer this question, we devised two alternate frames for the above question, asking separate representative samples one of the following questions:[5]

[Frame A] This year, Britain has promised approximately £11 billion in foreign aid. Some people say that Britain should reallocate some of this money towards flood relief here at home. Other people say that Britain must maintain its international commitments and pay out all the foreign aid it has promised. Thinking about this issue, would you support or oppose spending overseas aid money on British flood relief?

[Frame B]This year, Britain has promised approximately £11 billion in foreign aid. Some people say that Britain should reallocate some of this money towards flood relief here at home. Other people say that both foreign aid and flood relief are important because they help people who are suffering and that Britain should find money for flood relief from another source.  Thinking about this issue, would you support or oppose spending overseas aid money on British flood relief?

Presenting respondents with either counter frame had small but significant effects. Support for redirecting aid dropped slightly--to 70 per cent in Frame A and to 69 per cent in Frame B. There are two particularly noteworthy conclusions about these data. First, the proportion who support reallocating aid is nearly identical to those who say the UK spends too much on foreign aid. The crisis of the floods does not really increase opposition to foreign aid. Second, it is possible to generate at least a modest increase in support for foreign aid.

Endnotes

[1] Balls, Ed. 2014. “Ministers need to make long term decisions on flooding.” The Telegraph 20 February.  Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/10652776/Ed-Balls-Ministers-need-to-make-long-term-decisions-on-flooding.html.  Accessed 22 February 2014.

[2] Shipman, Tim and Claire Ellicott. 2014. “Spend our foreign aid on British victims of flooding: MP's impassioned call as crisis deepens.” The MailOnline 7 February. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2554324/Spend-foreign-aid-British-victims-flooding-MPs-impassioned-call-crisis-deepens.html. Accessed 22 February 2014.

[3] Data collection for this project was supported an ESRC grant to Professor Scotto (RES-061-25-0405).

[4] Milner, Helen, and Dustin Tingley. 2013. “Public Opinion and Foreign Aid: A Review Essay" International Interactions, 39(3):389-401.

[5] Sample sizes were 1344 for Frame A and 1263 for Frame B.

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