Is Australian public support for aid on the wane?

Every year the Development Policy Centre commissions a survey question asking a representative sample of Australians whether they think their government gives too much aid, too little, or about the right amount.

When we ask the question, we also tell participants the share of federal spending that goes to aid (just under 1%). We’ve asked the question since 2015. Because the wording of survey questions can affect replies, we’ve kept the question unchanged.

A number of different questions can be asked about aid: you can, for example, simply ask whether Australians support their government giving aid (most do). But we ask whether Australia gives too much or too little, because that’s the question most relevant to the decisions that policymakers have to make about aid budgets.

When we started in 2015, about 40% of Australians thought Australia gave too much aid. If anything, this got worse in following years. However, sometime between our 2019 survey and our 2020 survey, attitudes started to change. In subsequent years, Australians became much less likely to think their government gave too much aid, and somewhat more likely to think it didn’t give enough. We don’t know with certainty why this change occurred. However, our research points to the COVID-19 pandemic as the most likely cause.

You can see the change in the chart below. Good news if you’re a supporter of aid. However, the same chart also shows the findings from our 2023 survey, which we ran in June this year (heart problems, a pacemaker and queue of work have stopped me from analysing the data until now). If you compare 2023 to 2022 you can see Australians appear to have become more hostile to aid again.

The share of Australians who think their country gives too little aid has not dropped much since 2022, but the share who think their country gives too much has increased considerably. The change in those who think Australia gives too much is clearly statistically significant (p<0.01); the change in those who think it gives too little is more marginal (the p-value is just under 0.1).

Why do Australians’ attitudes about aid budgets seem to be changing for the worse all of a sudden? I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that the shift stems from COVID-19 ceasing to be at the forefront of people’s minds (even if it’s still floating around in their lungs). Quite possibly inflation and talk of “a cost of living crisis” is changing attitudes too.

There’s also another, more mundane, potential reason for the change. This year we had to switch survey firms. The firm we were using no longer runs surveys suitable for our annual questions, so we changed firms. The firm we used previously and the one we use now are both excellent, but so-called “house effects” are an issue in surveying. Even with best practice, survey firms end up with samples that differ somewhat in their attitudes. This means our recorded shift in views about aid this year might not have anything to do with the Australian public at all. It might stem solely from our change in firms. That’s possible, and I’m hoping to test the possibility later this year. However, this year’s Lowy Poll also registered a rise in the share of respondents who think aid should fall and Lowy hasn’t changed survey firms.

The change in attitudes is probably real, but it still doesn’t mean most Australians want aid cut. In 2023, a clear majority of Australians still think their government gives too little aid or about the right amount – only just over a third thinks it gives too much. And attitudes to aid are still more positive than they once were: in 2015, 40% of Australians thought their government gave too much. And who knows what will happen next year: inflation will likely be less, and there are plenty of reasons beyond COVID-19 for Australians to care about the world beyond their borders.

That said, if I were an aid advocate, I would be more anxious than I was a year ago. And I’d be gearing up to persuasively make the case to the public for more Australian aid.

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Disclosure

This research was undertaken with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The views represent those of the author only.

Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.

4 Comments

  • In my view, sustainability is everything. An intervention that essentially falls apart after completion is not only a waste of scare resources, it is also counterproductive.

    I refer to health programs that bring initial change, build up hope in the recipient population but for lack of sustainability mechanisms, then collapse. Health indicators return to pre-existing levels, sometimes worse and trust in future efforts is lost. There are many examples.

    This is where I diverge from partners that with hand on heart, proclaim they work with the government(s) concerned but not directly with community entities.

    In a society as deeply complex as Papua New Guinea, government administration and service delivery mechanisms, ostensibly made in our image, do not connect with those it was tasked to serve.

    This is a fundamental truth that needs to be better understood beyond assumptions around scarce government resourcing and a lack of skilled people.

    The inherited systems are neither culturally nor conceptually adjusted to create the degree of community participation and buy in needed to ensure sustainability.

    As has been pointed out elsewhere in this blog, more often than not, locally nuanced and owned solutions that address local issues, potentially provide the environment in which to embed sustainable health, education, law and order and economic initiatives.

    Until nation building is conceived and managed as genuine two-way push and pull effort at the community interface, I believe that sustainability, impact and value for money outcomes will continue to elude the best intentions of development assistance partners.

  • Thank you for your interesting analysis, Terence, and I do hope your health improves. Your Blog opens up the question of the quantity and quality of aid. The neglect of the quality and effectiveness of development aid provided by donors is more troubling than the amounts allocated in budgets, in my view.

    It is astonishing that so little attention is given in development aid to the idea of the sustainability of benefits from aid and the dissemination of those benefits at scale. For example, from all the 111 education development projects implemented by donors in Indonesia since the 1970s, about 80% were never followed up to see if their benefits sustained. One consequence for donors of that neglect is that our understanding of how and why change and development occurs remains rudimentary. Furthermore, according to donors’ own project completion evaluations, only about 50% of the benefits from education projects are assessed as likely sustainable. That is ‘likely’, not actually sustainable (say) two or more years after aid ceases. And so, aid money continues to be invested in less than optimal designs and activities — at best.

    The big Australian education projects, the Australia Indonesia Basic Education Program and the Education Partnership that ran consecutively from 2006 until 2017 were evaluated as less successful in quality and results than Australia’s much smaller and earlier projects in East Nusa Tenggara and in East Java. This is a slightly different matter, but it also points to the neglect of known qualities at the expense of quantity in the form of more dollars.

    To answer the question in the title of your Blog, Terence, I suspect that if Australian taxpayers had a better understanding of development aid’s quality and longer-term outcomes, their support for aid would wane much further.

    • Thanks for the comment Robert.

      Sorry for my delayed reply, I’ve been on leave.

      You’ve made some interesting points, thank you.

      It’s not really directly related to public opinion but I think the sustainability point is particularly interesting. It would require funding, but there is incredible scope for researchers to be studying sustainability. For example, by visiting large infrastructure projects in SE Asia and the Pacific a decade after completion to see which are still functional. This would be easy, as the projects can all be found in OECD or WB/ADB/DFAT data. That would enable a sample to be randomly selected and then visited.

      Infrastructure would be particularly easy, given how easy it is to ascertain visually whether a project is functioning or not. But other sectors could be done too. Just a question of funding.

      Terence

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