I am doing a series of articles on the book “Rethinking Canadian Aid” (University of Ottawa Press, 2015), and now it’s time for “Chapter 9: Why Aid? Canadian Perception of the Usefulness of Canadian Aid in an Era of Economic Uncertainty” by Dominic H. Silvio.
There is growing evidence in many countries that the state of the economy can have a powerful impact on public attitudes towards anything international, but particularly development assistance. Bad economic news can have negative effects on public attitudes towards aid; and positive news, positive effects (Smillie 2003; Zealand and Howes 2012). Since the beginning of the Canadian aid program in the early 1950s, it has received considerable public support (Lavergne 1989; Smillie 1998ab, 2003). However, the perception of the usefulness of aid has not been endorsed by Canadians without reservation.
This is a huge, under-analyzed area, and yet it is under-analyzed for a very good reason. As noted in earlier chapters, citizen’s understanding of what “development” actually is or what constitutes aid, is actually really quite shallow in many countries, particularly Canada (Or as Silvio notes, “Research shows that the public knows virtually nothing about foreign aid and that what they think they know is actually incorrect”). So, studying how much support a citizen has for a given area also brings into question if their opinion is even significant. If a person has a detailed understanding of an issue, their support/lack of support is likely quite stable; if they only have a superficial understanding, their support levels are more variable and prone to shift with the wind. If you then analyze the variability, is it statistically significant? Or is it just a measure of the force and direction of the wind?
The initial framework by Silvio is solid, suggesting multiple possible measures for public support and attitudes:
- Public opinion polling;
- Elections and electoral platforms;
- Donations to NGOs;
- Volunteering with NGOs;
- Engagement in public debate;
- Consumer behaviour (i.e. fair trade);
Most of items 2-6 are nuancing whether the support is “solid”, whether there is a true commitment to the “cause” or if it is just “polling-deep” (i.e. if you ask me to choose between butter or guns, I’ll choose butter, but that is just a polling question, easy to answer, without the consequences of not investing in guns to protect the citizenry). Unfortunately, data on #s 2-6 are almost non-existent and inherently unreliable as they are equally “self-reported” as with the polling data.
Based on this data, it is clear that the public is more likely than not to be comfortable with the level of aid currently being provided, and since 2009, has become more so. For instance, in 2010, over half (54.4 percent) considered the level of spending to be about right — meaning Canada should give the same amount of ODA (up 8 points from 2009).
As with the general lack of understanding of aid, these numbers are almost meaningless to policy managers, but for a different reason — if you ask someone to tell you if the government should spend more, wouldn’t it be more telling if they actually knew how much we spent on ANYTHING in government — health care, social assistance, aid — and the relative proportions on each, before asking them if it should go up, down or stay the same? In part, you would also need to know their general views of government (should be smaller, larger or same size) and their normal view of budgeting (nominal values of aid budgets, the relative share of the government budget, percentage of GDP, or share of global spending on development) before interpreting views of a specific sectoral expenditure. Without knowing those other contextual beliefs, and I know it’s too detailed a possibility, the winds shift outcomes for multiple reasons and you can’t tell why. Support might be “a mile wide and an inch deep”, but old research used to ask about budget levels and the result was predictable — if you asked first if aid should go up or down, and then asked them to estimate out of $1 spent by the government on everything, the estimates of aid would be somewhere in the 4-5 cent range i.e. on average, they estimated 5% of the federal government budget was foreign aid. When they learned it was a fraction of a penny, support for increasing aid went up, but not to the 4-5 cent range, even when they first said that current spending was appropriate and they thought it was 5%.
First, public opinion means very little to governmental policy formulation where ODA is concerned, perhaps not surprisingly in light of Canadian public opinion, which consistently gives the government a high performance rating on the aid file, while assigning it the lowest priority among both domestic and foreign policy issues. Second, public opinion, while widely supportive of issues such as development assistance, is not, in reality, very strong.
I think the conclusions are appropriate and reflect the weakness of polling data generally, and aid polls in particular. However, one alternate conclusion or at least one area that isn’t explored and perhaps could be in future, is whether public opinion might not affect ODA levels but might have more influence on the type of aid (humanitarian vs. development, given that humanitarian assistance is easier to sell and understand) or if it might influence recipient choice (given that we have large diaspora communities in Canada).
A tough area but a good analysis of what’s available.