On Tuesday last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled that the Department for International Development (DfID) would be merged back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), creating a new ‘super department’ called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In his speech announcing the decision, Johnson argued that the aid provided by the United Kingdom had not been tied to the interests of the United Kingdom. As a point of comparison, Johnson highlighted Ukraine and Zambia, which receive equal amounts of funding from the DfID even though “Ukraine is vital for European security.”
This decision was met with stringent criticism from some, including from former Prime Minister David Cameron. Critics were quick to note that many in Zambia, unlike few in Ukraine, face extreme poverty. In the view of these critics, aid should be distributed on the basis of need rather than on the basis of how much the aid can enable the receiving country to help serve the UK’s broader foreign policy interests.
In a poll of 2000 conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies on Thursday, we found the public split on this philosophical argument, with equal amounts preferring, respectively, aid to be based on need and aid given with reference to the UK’s own interests.
There appears to be, however, some divergence in views depending on who respondents had voted for in 2019. 50% of those who voted Conservative in the last general election agree that aid should be provided based on UK interests, while only 35% of 2019 Labour voters would support this. Only a third of 2019 Conservative voters think it should be provided based on the needs of recipient countries. By contrast, a majority of 2019 Labour voters (53%) support this viewpoint.
On the decision to merge the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office, our poll last week showed the British public almost equally split on their views of this decision. 34% of respondents stated that they would prefer that the DfID merge into the FCO, 33% would favour the department remaining independent, and over a third (34%) stated that they don’t know.
This philosophical argument over how aid is proportioned may nevertheless have missed the broader picture. In his Commons statement on Tuesday, Johnson re-stated the UK Government’s continued commitment to sending 0.7% of UK GDP overseas as aid. This target was first achieved by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2013 and has been reached every year since. Our poll last week, however, found a strong majority of respondents (55%) stating they believed that they believed the amount the UK sent in aid in 2019 to meet this target –– £15.2 billion –– was too much. Less than a quarter of those polled stated that the amount was ‘about right.’
Looking at the demographic breakdowns of responses to this question, an overwhelming majority of 2019 Conservative voters (76%) think this amount was too much. A lower number (but nevertheless a plurality) of Labour voters (40%) believed that the overseas aid provided by the UK in 2019 was too much.
Meanwhile, another variation was observed based on the age of the respondent. Just a quarter (25%) of 18-to-24-year-olds believed that the amount the UK spent on aid in 2019 was too much, with 38% stating they thought it was ‘too little.’ By contrast, 74% of 55-to-64-year-olds and 67% of those above the age of 65 thought it was too much, with just 3% of both of these age categories finding it to have been too little.
Within the poll, we further provided the UK public with a list of regions and asked which they would most support the UK providing development funding being direct towards, providing a ‘none of these’ option at the end of the list. Given this list, a significant minority of respondents (35%) stated that they would not support the foreign aid budget being spent at all. This figure included over half of respondents aged 55. Moreover, just 15% of 2019 Labour voters hold the view that the foreign aid budget being spent at all, in stark contrast to the 57% of Conservatives who would support not spending the foreign aid budget at all.
Overall, this poll highlights that public opinion is split on the Government’s announcement of the DfID-FCO merger. In the meantime, however, it is clear that the UK public is strongly in favour of the UK reducing the aid budget, and a significant portion of the population may favour a cessation of foreign aid together. As such, last week’s debate over the merger may have missed the more salient concerns of the public regarding the United Kingdom’s foreign aid spending.