I arrived into my office on the first working day of the new year to a depressingly familiar refrain: “Did you see what was on the front page of the Daily Mail today?!”
It came as no surprise when the details of the Mail’s latest attacks on aid were shared around the office to great indignation. “How do those journalists sleep at night?!” someone commented, upset that anyone could attack UK Government spending that demonstrably saves literally millions of lives.
This is not a new narrative. There have always been attacks on aid. Those of us who work in the sector are by turns outraged and incredulous that people just don’t seem to get how amazing the international aid system is at savings lives, bringing hope, and building the futures of some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world.
But just as countries begin to become wealthier and we begin to realistically plan the end of global poverty, we stand at a crossroads. If the aid sector continues to rehash the same arguments we always have then we are going to lose this conversation and millions will suffer as a result.
The concept of post-truth politics is one that I find abhorrent. That the basis for decision-making has become emotion-laden statements that are trivially proven to be utter lies (£350m to the NHS instead of the EU, anyone?) fills me with dread.
Sure, there has always been theatre in politics, and there have always been lies. But the current scale and scope of using political and media platforms to dehumanise the ‘other’ or the shameless rejection of objective fact is unprecedented in recent memory. It has entirely predictable and terrible consequences that we must come together to stop.
For those of us who value facts and evidence-based policymaking, what do we do in this poisonous environment?
First, we have to double-down on evidence. Evidence has always been necessary, but is never sufficient, in driving good public policy. Without it we are nowhere, and if we too abandon the principle that evidence matters we will lose the conversation on aid even more completely.
That particular attack by the Mail was a great example: it criticised conditional cash transfers. Yet, there is enormous evidence that conditional cash transfers are, under the right conditions, by far the most effective and efficient way of delivering assistance. If we had not been using them we would have been helping fewer people less effectively. Aid critics cannot have and eat their cake: a non-wasteful DFID must use evidence-based policy to drive decision making, not political expediency. We must defend these decisions.
We see similar distortions around transparency and corruption. DFID, and organisations that it supports such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, are so incredibly transparent they vigorously seek out corruption and publish what they uncover. It is irony of the highest order that this transparency creates the ammunition used by aid detractors. By attacking those who are the most transparent and those who give corruption no place to hide, critics are guilty of turning a virtue into a vice and worsening the very problem they (and, indeed, we all!) want addressed. We cannot let these distortions of the evidence go unanswered.
Second, after evidence, we must show more empathy. Here I don’t meant the kind of empathy that we have for those helped by aid: we are generally not short on that as a sector, and we know very well how that empathy generates public sympathy for specific people caught in specific crises.
No, here I am talking about empathy for the opponents of aid themselves. Everyone in our sector has or knows an ‘awkward uncle’ who they clash with over the Christmas table about aid spending. We too often dismiss these people’s concerns, exasperated with their inability to see the 'nobility and rightness' in our work, frustrated that our presentation of the facts is insufficient to make them understand why we need to act.
A little empathy goes a long way, and understanding people’s very real concerns and speaking to those can make a huge difference.
As just one example, 0.7% of our GNI is an utterly affordable expenditure for a rich country like Britain that spends 99.3% of its GNI at home. I know that if given the choice of "cutting the aid budget" versus “fixing the care home crisis" that I am being presented with a completely false choice.
To me, the real questions are not how generous we are to the poorest, it’s how generous we are to the richest. Is it really right that the UK should have the lowest rates of corporation tax in the entire G20? How quickly could we address our own social challenges if we chose to increase taxes on those of us most able to pay and spend the funds on ensuring a decent life for all? And, most crucially, we in the aid sector must ask ourselves who doesn’t want a decent life for all?
What increased empathy lets us do is make a stronger appeal to the common humanity in all of us. It also lets us recognise the very real concerns that those opposed to aid have, while not stopping us from challenging those concerns that are not supported by evidence.
Empathy matters. At the end of the day I wholeheartedly believe that no-one wants children to die from easily preventable diseases any more than they want someone’s Gran to experience horrible conditions in a care home, or to be left to fend for themselves after a flood.
I am with David Cameron on this. When asked “Shouldn't we fix things at home before we send so much money abroad?” he replied “Britain is a rich and prosperous country. We do not have to choose. We can do both.” A little more evidence and empathy would go a long way to ensuring we do exactly that.