Is there a better response to our public support crisis?

11 June 2018
Author: Pablo Yanguas

It hasn't been a great year for aid charities so far. Public outcry about abuse and unethical behaviour in the high profile examples of Oxfam and Save the Children has been inflamed by opportunists, who have tapped into a constituency of popular disdain for the aid industry, and a certain resentment towards the holier-than-thou language and attitudes of the charity world. 

This crisis of confidence arising from the scandals has led to apologies from many in the sector and some tangible commitment to change. But without a change in the underlying strategy and messaging of aid, there is zero guarantee that good intentions and gestures alone will forestall future attacks.

Always fighting the previous war

Party animals, risk seekers, and outright deplorable men have always been at the margins of humanitarianism, just as they have been at the margins of finance, the oil industry, or international trade. But the sector has chosen to deploy a narrative – salvation – that cannot conceptually or morally justify the presence of those individuals amongst our ranks, and promises expulsion and zero tolerance of miscreants. 

The problem is that, when the next scandal du jour comes around, no one will care about these promises. Vitriol and manipulation are a feature of aid debates in the 21st century, not a bug. And it is impossible to defeat tabloids at their own game, because they are seldom accountable to truth or fairness.  

Instead of fighting the last war, let us prepare for the next one. Let us look at the current crisis as an opportunity to reflect on the politics and theatrics of aid debates, what has been going wrong for a while now, and what we can do about it.

Who will stand up for foreign aid?

Aid practitioners are an isolated community with no clear political constituency. The voluntary and official aid system is a product of the Cold War and post-WWII internationalism, later maintained and expanded by politicians through inertia, neglect or instrumentalization as much as by any commitment to humanitarian values. And to this day we look to politicians for leadership, hoping that the next holders of government office will truly believe in aid

Fifteen years ago, the aid world underwent a golden age of internationalism rocked by “the Three B’s”. Blair established DFID as a cabinet-level department. Bono hung out with the Pope to advocate debt relief. And Bush expanded the American aid system after Monterrey in 2002, launching PEPFAR and the MCC, and bringing his “compassionate conservatism” (warts and all) to MDG Africa.

We may not have an equivalent of the Three B’s right now – and indeed some will think that we are better off for it. But without equivalent figures it is not clear how long the aid sector as we know it will survive. 

Internationalism has become a bad word in our politics. There are still plenty of internationalists, on the right and the left. But they are embattled and disheartened, weakened by partisan polarization and economic populism. What is the aid community doing to help them? What is it doing to connect with some of the more unlikely bedfellows, like the corporate sector or religious groups? How are we educating and nurturing the next generation of internationalist leaders and spokespersons?

Time for a new strategy

I don’t think that we can just continue the current strategy, broadly comprising three dubious approaches. The first one is the appeal to guilt, so helpful in donation drives, but so self-defeating in raising expectations that lead to popular backlash. The second one is the appeal to the left, the safe space of Guardian readers and new progressives, while side-lining the religious humanitarianism or free trade cosmopolitism that buttressed the last golden age. The third approach is countering scandal with facts, despite psychological findings that long-held personal beliefs are more easily swayed by surprising cases than by statistical data.

A proper debate on alternative strategies and messages is in order. Perhaps we could reason by analogy, reminding donor taxpayers of the pride they feel at having overcome in their own countries social, economic and political challenges not too dissimilar from those faced by aid beneficiaries. Or we could persuade by comparison, arguing how aid programmes are much better managed and more accountable than other public policies, as we are now seeing with the predictable ODA debacle in the UK. 

We could even contribute to a public conversation about morality, taking a page from controversial figures like Jordan Peterson who – in the age of Twitter – manage to draw massive crowds to public lectures on responsibility and ethics.

The word “crisis” comes from the Ancient Greek “krisis”, which means “decision”. Instead of cowering or trying yesterday’s defensive tactics, let’s decide on a different strategy, one that meets the challenges of our time.

Pablo's most recent book is Why We Lie About Aid: Development and the Messy Politics of Change.

About the author

Headshot of Pablo Yanguas

Research fellow at the University of Manchester