Declining foreign aid sparks change in the way NGOs talk about poverty

cobb-foreignaidAs the state of international aid financing is in decline, there are renewed calls for NGOs to change the way that they talk about ending poverty’s problems to policy makers and the average person.

“What we are selling is old and tired. And it isn’t working,” wrote David Humphries, director of global communications for the NGO Global Communities.

Humphries argues in The Guardian that organizations and media feed off of simple stories about disaster that prevents any opportunity to discuss the complexity of development. With so much focus on the delivery of content and information, whether it be Facebook, radio or billboards, the actual content gets lost in the shuffle.

“[U]ntil we acknowledge that the solutions to poverty are complex and begin communicating them as such, we will appear increasingly irrelevant. What we are communicating is not working. Let’s move beyond guilt and optimism and try something new – complex and sometimes troubling reality,” he concludes.

The amount of money available for foreign aid has declined over the past three years. Consistent growth from 2000 to 2010 saw foreign aid peak at $136.9 billion. The sharp decline of aid as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis quickly recovered. However tightening budgets over the past few years have given way to foreign aid cuts.

A prediction from the Development Policy Centre shows that there will be a pause in the overall decline, thanks to the increase in the UK’s budget. The fall will resume shortly thereafter.

A World Bank working paper showed aid from donors fall by an average of 20% to 25% in the wake of a crisis. It then takes a decade for the aid budgets to recover.

“Research suggests that in the wake of a significant banking crisis or recession, aid budgets will continue to fall over a substantial period of time,” blogged Robin Davies, Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre, and research assistant Michelle l O’ in reference to the paper.


Humphries and others before him have championed proving donors with more information about the challenges to development. In a time of fiscal austerity, there is a belief that a more compelling and truthful case can be made that will lead to more foreign aid.

Aside from the downward trend of spending, the problem may also lie in the audience. Paul Niehaus, a researcher from US San Diego, found that donors are not interested in learning about effectiveness, especially when geographically removed from the problem. As a result, NGOs and charities will talk about the needs of people rather than the ways to support them.

Donors tend to make decisions based on emotions. A fact well know and exploited by charitable fundraisers. The most obvious examples are the fly-covered gaunt children that sat next to the plump Sally Struthers in commercials for the Christian Children’s Fund in the late 1980’s and early 90’s.

Niehaus argues that the lack of information provided to donors after giving deters them from seeking out information prior to giving. It perpetuates a decision making process that is absent of fact. His paper makes the case that providing more information about impacts can lead donors to ask more questions and do better research prior to making a donation.

He also happens to be behind GiveDirectly, the cash transfer organization that recently caught the attention of major news media with its promising study results. With the evidence in hand that giving people cash can lead to positive impacts, Niehaus’ theories will be put to the test.

Organizations like Innovations for Poverty Action make the argument that evidence should inform policy decisions. Doing the research to prove what works and what is accomplished should make a compelling case for policy makers and donors. Others, like Humphries, see it as a communications problem.

All agree that the status quo is not cutting it. Can NGO’s turn things around and halt the fall of foreign aid funding?


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]