Listening. You’d think it would be easy. But those of us working to build public support for issues like UK aid would do well to listen to people who disagree with us or are sceptical. It’s important.
Take Brexit. As a country we’ve spent the last few years putting people in two opposing groups. The repercussions of this divide-and-conquer approach to win people round to one or other way of thinking will, I fear, be felt for years to come.
It’s the same with UK aid. Whenever an article on aid comes out, I immediately go to the comments section. It’s not always a happy place to be. The first comment I read on a recent article criticising aid said, ‘Don’t send money, send bombs.’ There are people who categorically disagree with giving aid to help those less fortunate overseas at all.
It’s a bleak notion, and one I refuse to dwell on. Because I know that huge numbers of people do believe the UK should do its bit, and want the world to be a better place when they leave it than when they arrived.
The reason I go to the comments section is because it gives a sense of how people want aid to be spent – focused on helping countries to stand on their own two feet, supporting governments to look after their citizens, and investing in people and healthcare to create sustainable solutions to poverty and inequality.
The good news is that’s exactly what Save the Children is calling for aid to prioritise. We’re listening to what people in the UK want aid to do. Here’s one case of UK aid supporting the Ethiopian government to increase the amount of money raised through taxes that can be invested in vital services likes schools and hospitals. This is the kind of aid that will change children’s futures in the long term.
Boxing people in
Nine months ago, I began talking to people around the UK about aid. A conversation I had with a member of the public has stayed with me.
It was a cold and drizzly Saturday in a busy market square. I’d been asking people if they were local to the area – I wanted a clearer sense of what local people specifically thought. The first man I asked said no, he was visiting friends. Then a man in his 30s, who was pushing a pram, looked over at me curiously.
“Are you OK? Can I help with anything?” he asked.
I think he thought I was lost. I told him I was asking local people for their thoughts on UK aid and wondered if he’d be interested to chat.
“Yeah, but you’re not going to like what I’ve got to say,” he told me.
It turned out this man didn’t support UK aid, believing that “charity starts at home”.
There were two things I reflected on afterwards. Ordinarily, I’d put this man in an anti-aid box – someone I can’t reach and shouldn’t try to. But then I thought how he sought me out. He saw someone in need and asked how he could help. If that isn’t someone who believes in helping those less fortunate than themselves, I don’t know who is.
Second, I don’t want him to be apologetic for his views. How else can I build public support for UK aid with more people if this man feels he’ll be “in trouble” for his views? I agree with him that we should support people in this country to live happier and healthier lives. I agree that supporting national and local charities is important.
Amid all the political turmoil around Brexit and talk of a General Election looming, if we’re to come together as a country, we must start listening to people who, on the face of it, think differently to us. Persuading people about what aid can do to change children’s lives means we must first take on board there will be people who may think differently to us but who share the same values.
In fact, most people I chat to think it’s right that we help other countries and support UK aid. But they want it to be spent on people who need it most and to know it’s making a difference. I can’t argue with that.
Perhaps Save the Children and organisations like us haven’t told a strong enough story of the positive change we all, as tax-payers, contribute to. That’s why this year, as Save the Children campaigns for UK aid to work harder to make sure all children can get the healthcare they need, I’m making it my mission to show you the difference UK government funded programmes are making.
Want to join me?
This year I’ll be supporting campaigners to listen to others in their community about UK aid and to talk to their MP about why it matters. Would you be interested in helping me? If so, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now is the time to appreciate what we all have in common – both here in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Ultimately, we’re all interested in building a better world. To help us get there, we could do with spending more time listening to each other.