9 lessons learned campaigning for aid

The Campaign to Defend Aid and Development is a collaboration of 25 Bond members, coordinating efforts to make the case for aid in tackling global poverty.

The campaign has been running since 2017 and I’ve been campaign director for just over a year. Here are 9 things that, with colleagues, I think we’ve learned.

1. You can’t change someone’s mind by telling them they are wrong

The psychology informing advertising shows people often need both an emotional and logical proposition to justify a purchase. One without the other just isn’t sufficient. Whichever order you put it in, you need to engage with people where they are, not where you are or where you wish they were.

#AidWorks – DFID’s campaign to rebut aid scepticism – is reaffirming for the aid industry but triggers opposition from sceptics. Because it tells them they are wrong. Close your eyes, think about the last time you changed your mind about something. Behavioural psychologists and neurologists call it “reconsideration” and it can’t happen when you feel threatened because you can’t access the right part of your brain. In a campaigning context, it is known as the “Heartwired” approach, and has been used successfully by campaigners for equal marriage and other LGBTQI+ rights.

2. Charity begins at home

Andrew Mitchell was fond of saying “charity begins at home, but it doesn’t end there.” He was well ahead of his time.

After a decade of austerity, where just about every domestic budget was cut, the aid budget is objectively one of the only ones that went up. Mitchell conclusively won the argument that we shouldn’t “balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world” but the “charity begins at home” frame is now so pervasive that you can’t go around it, you have to go through it. Acknowledging it, up front, is what Unicef and CARE are now doing with their latest DRTV fundraising appeals.

3. Solidarity (the concept, not the word) is as popular as ever

People care about other people. They always have. Let’s hope that they always will. Behavioural psychologists and anthropologists agree that we are all “relational” beings. What changes is who we relate to: family, community, tribe, class, race, faith, flag, fraternity, sorority.

Ask anyone who lives in a small town – like we did in Newport Pagnell or Farnham – what they like best about living in their town and they will tell you it’s because “round here, everyone looks out for each other”.

4. Don’t assume “our” supporters are the same as “us”

People who generously support our charities with donations aren’t all like us. Most don’t identify as politically “left” or “right”. Most don’t think about party politics between elections. Many are swing voters. They don’t understand development-speak or academic jargon.

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And when we tested the best message carriers for our message, we found that “people like me” from the perspective of the audience works the best. We field tested dozens of videos with millions of people across England, which showed us that what works is rarely what we like the best.

5. You can’t defend the indefensible, so don’t!

Wherever you draw the line, it’s helpful to have a view on what “good” aid and “bad” aid is. Argue for more of what you like, defend what you’ve got but don’t be afraid to criticise policy decisions you disagree with. Otherwise, you look like a vested interest, wedded to the status quo and you are especially vulnerable to insurgent campaigners or reforming politicians.

Focus on communicating both progress in tackling poverty and the possibility of ending it, rather than just simply establishing a sense of urgent need. Look to the future and be restless for better. But be realistic about what aid can and can’t do.

6. 0.7% isn’t a little

Global poverty feels like a big problem because it is. But we’re half way to solving it and, like all problems, it can only be solved bit by bit. A country like the UK (one of the ten richest in the world) can afford the 0.7% spending commitment on aid, but let’s not say it isn’t much money because that’s just not true.

7. Perception matters

Policy-makers do not take policy decisions by poring over the details of public opinion polling data. They blend ideology, evidence and a perception of public opinion to take judgements about policy and political trade-offs. Politicians in particular live such atypical lives and have such a different experience of social media that they are especially affected by the tone of debates and the way in which they are approached.

In an interview with The Times, Michael Gove spoke about how struck he was by what people were saying over the holidays “when they come up to me, whether in London (where he lives), in Surrey (his constituency), in Sussex (where his wife’s family live) and in Scotland (where his family live).” Constituents who take an authentic approach to engaging with their MPs are the most influential on them. Activists living in Surrey Heath can wield more influence than those in Islington, unless and until political decision-makers change.

8. If our issue wins but our movement dies, we’ve failed

The UK poverty lobby, particularly the child poverty lobby, is now back on the pitch. But their experience over that last decade stands in stark contrast to international development campaigners. Becoming service providers, restrictions to their campaigning voice and then losing their service provision budgets prevented NGOs from saving their issue from public policy decisions.

Because the debate over international development will never go away, a strong and healthy campaigning movement is required not just to push for advances when political circumstances are aligned (hello Make Poverty History, I’m looking at you) but to also to defend those gains when political circumstances change (hello Conservative leadership election, I’m looking at you).

9. Campaigners make things possible, but politicians make things happen

We’ve known this for a while and our steering group chair, Kirsty McNeill, has told us many times. Yet it remains true and we mustn’t forget it. I came into this job feeling passionately about the cause (global poverty) and believing in the power of government (and governments working together) to solve it. But I’ve come to realise the importance of the movement in providing the dynamic necessary to motivate politicians to act.

In a world of so many problems which are necessary and urgent, with electoral cycles of half a decade or less, having a movement which stays focused such a long-term issue is vital.