Attitudes towards Development Co-operation in Ireland: Implications for Development Education

08/10/2013 at 2:50 pm 4 comments

Guest blog by Stephen McCloskey, Centre for Global Education, Belfast.


Dóchas, the Irish association of development non-governmental organisations, has very commendably commissioned the first full-scale survey of public attitudes to development aid and global poverty carried out in Ireland for a decade.  Given the scale of the survey – 1,000 adults consulted at a national level with a range of gender, age, regional and social variables – it’s findings effectively represent a barometer of how the public perceive development co-operation in the post-2008 recessionary period.  The survey also holds particular importance for development educators in suggesting how public understanding of global issues has changed over the last ten years.

The results of the survey are something of a mixed bag and at times confusing in their messages about public attitudes to aid and its effectiveness.  For example, the survey found that 54% of respondents are ‘in favour of government aid to developing countries’ and yet 55% feel that it is “pointless” to donate aid ‘because of high levels of corruption in recipient countries’.  Respondents seem to be suggesting that they value the Irish aid programme but have serious questions as to its efficacy.  The reasons behind these attitudes seem to be based on a lack of trust in the governance of developing countries and ‘a real fear that aid fuels corruption’.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the findings for development educators relate to what they tell us about public knowledge of development and a perceived powerlessness in bringing about change.  Just 19% of respondents ‘felt well or very well informed’ on global issues with 60% professing ‘average knowledge’.  This is despite the fact that 66% feel ‘fairly’ or ‘very concerned’ about global poverty. So, the development sector clearly struggles to translate public concern into knowledge and action on global issues.  In regard to active citizenship on global issues, 53% of respondents ‘feel helpless in bringing about positive change’ and only 32% feel confident in influencing decisions ‘affecting my local area’.


It appears to be the case in recessionary Ireland that public perceptions – real or imagined – of their capacity to tackle poverty have receded which is concerning for development educators who prioritise action outcomes as a central plank of their practice.  It is also concerning that most respondents regard the causes of poverty in the global South as residing within developing countries themselves and not, for example, connected to the debt crisis or the activities of ‘better off countries’.  This view depressingly corresponds to an increasingly shared perspective in Ireland and the UK which blames the poor for their own poverty (CGE, 13 May 2013).

On the more positive side of the findings, respondents seem to regard non-governmental organisations as ‘important sources of information’ and an important platform for action on development issues.  The more engaged respondents are with NGO activities the more likely they are to ‘take action’ (56%).  There remains a large reservoir of public trust in NGO activities which the development sector can build upon in starting to address some of the weaknesses in its approach to global education identified in the survey.  The findings should be read in conjunction with the 2011 Finding Frames report which questioned the shallow and short-term methods used by many NGOs to engage the public with development issues.  Often funding related and requiring a few clicks on a keyboard, these methods lack the depth, complexity, reflection, analysis and action that are central to development education and urgently needed to elevate public engagement with our sector.

Finding Frames argues for a ‘values change in society’ and suggests that ‘it is time for the development sector to transform its practices radically’ (5).  The corollary of this report is to invest more, not less, in development education particularly within the development sector itself.  It is a tempting proposition to interpret the survey as a reflection of development education’s failings.  However, while there is no doubting that the sector needs to collectively reflect on what these findings tell us about our work, it is suggested that the low levels of public knowledge and engagement indicated by the survey should spur the development sector to markedly enhance its support of development education.  The 2012 Irish Aid Annual Report showed that the government’s development education allocation represented 0.5% of the total aid budget.  If we are serious about public engagement this figure needs to increase and to be mirrored by a greater contribution from within the development NGO sector itself.  Dóchas has taken an important first step with this survey which will help to inform future public engagement strategies implemented by the sector.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hans Zomer  |  09/10/2013 at 9:51 am

    Readers might like to contrast Stephen’s article above with the Minister’s recent answer to a Dáil question about Development Education:

    Parliamentary Question – Oireachtas
    To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views that an educated citizenship is essential for accountability, and therefore it is essential for the success of the Policy for International Development that investment in development education is increased; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
    – Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.
    * For WRITTEN answer on Tuesday, 8th October, 2013.
    Ref No: 42045/13

    (Minister of State, Joe Costello T.D.)

    The Government’s development cooperation programme, which is managed by Irish Aid in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, reflects the values and experience of the Irish people and depends on their support.

    Development education, and public information and engagement, have been, and remain, key elements of the aid programme, as set out in the Government’s new Policy for International Development, One World, One Future. The policy states that Irish Aid will work for a deep public understanding and engagement with the aid programme and our development policy. It recognises that an engaged and active public is vital to ensure long lasting and sustained commitment to addressing global poverty and inequalities. Ireland’s development education funding supports activities which build a stronger understanding of global development issues, strengthen public awareness of the reality of the issues involved in our commitment to development cooperation, and promote a stronger sense of global solidarity.

    The Policy reaffirms the priority given to development education. In particular, we recognise the importance of a more strategic approach to development education and have been working to target funding effectively at key areas and to strengthen the focus on results from this investment. The core priorities for development education include initial teacher education; online access to development education resources; capacity building for the development education sector; and a programme with third level students in Irish universities.

    We also prioritise development education initiatives at post-primary level. Last week, I launched the new WorldWise Global Schools Programme (2013-2016), which strengthens our support for second-level schools. It focuses on promoting the knowledge, values and critical analysis skills that are central to development education throughout our post-primary school network.

    For each of the last two years, 2011 and 2012, the Government has provided €3.2 million through Irish Aid for development education. This year, we are providing €3.5 million. In addition, Irish Aid has asked NGOs which receive long term development programme grants under the aid programme to incorporate development education and public engagement initiatives in their work programmes. Last year, €1.5 million was provided for such initiatives.

  • 2. Conor Quinn (@conorquinn85)  |  09/10/2013 at 1:24 pm

    Great article Stephen, and I agree that the report shows a need for more dev ed. But your figure of 0.5% is perhaps uncharitable to Irish Aid. It ignores the €1.5m Minister Costello refers to above, and divides the €3.2m figure by the entire ODA budget, large parts of which could not be devoted to dev ed (e.g. the 30% delivered through multilateral channels).

    Moreover, as always when demanding increased funds, the question is, ‘where should those funds be diverted from?’ – HIV programmes? Water and sanitation? (Perhaps you or others do have useful proposals here, in which case I would be fully supportive.)

    I agree there’s more we can and must do ourselves as NGOs – and Dóchas is on the right track already with initiatives like the World’s Best News project. All NGOs need to be dev ed organisations to some degree. We must stop appealing to the lowest common denominator, start looking beyond our narrow concerns of funding for the next quarter, and challenge ourselves to communicate messages that nurture the public’s support AND understanding of the sector.

    This should not require significant diversion of funds. What it does require is a greater understanding of the frames we use, and the will to change them. The upcoming DEG research project is an excellent step towards meeting the first condition. But there is nothing anyone but ourselves can do to meet the second.

  • 3. Stephen McCloskey  |  11/10/2013 at 2:47 pm

    Hi Conor

    Thanks for contributing to this important debate. Julius Nyere, the former President of Tanzania, once said “Take every penny you have set aside in aid for Tanzania, and spend it in the UK explaining to people the facts and causes of poverty”. He was not diminishing the importance of aid but recognised that the key to eradicating poverty permanently requires agency and action in the global North and that needs to be prefaced by education. I don’t think we should have to choose between HIV programmes and development education. That is to accept the short-sightedness of policy-makers who cut the aid budget by 224 million Euro or 24% in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Dochas described these cuts as “wholly disproportionate” and development education has taken a battering as a result. Valued colleagues have lost their jobs and organisations gone to the wall. So I reiterate my call for the government and the big NGOs in our sector to reverse this trend as a matter of urgency. The Dochas survey illustrates the lack of public engagement that we can expect from a lack of investment in development education.

    Regards, Stephen

  • 4. R Storey  |  13/12/2013 at 7:05 pm

    Scepticism of the benefits of ODA will remain so long as Irish Aid and the NGO sector refuse to provide adequate accountability either in their published Annual Reports or in failing to provide direct requests for such information from the general public.
    The sector is hiding behind the need for legislattion to be implemented while we all know that the required level of transparency and accountability can be provided if the will exists.
    The attempt to use development education as a PR tool is failing because it does not deal with financial v outcomes accountability.


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