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We took to the streets to find out what people really think about UK Aid

Nine ICS volunteers headed to Southend-on-Sea in Essex this month to gauge the public’s mood towards fighting global inequality.

Find out what they learnt – then put their tips into practice to get people near you passionate about development.

Southend – which ranks as one of the most deprived towns in Essex – has above average levels of unemployment, below average immigration and sits in a county where every single district voted to leave the European Union. 

And according to a regular study on the British public's attitude towards aid, it's an area in which people don't know about the work being done to fight inequality around the world. We wanted to find out just how true that is.  

Southend, from the top of the hill, looking out towards the sea and a pier
© Jimj0will /
Southend-on-Sea, with above-average unemployment is one of the most deprived towns in Essex

UK Aid – 70p for every £100 earnt 

We brought together nine ICS alumni from different parts of the country - including Southend itself - for a one-day workshop to learn more about UK Aid – the portion of our taxes being spent on tackling global poverty. 

For every hundred pounds made in the UK, 70p is spent on foreign aid. That’s 0.7% of our ‘gross national income’ – and in real terms it translates to around £14 billion a year.  

That might sound a lot, but as the world’s fifth biggest economy, it's a small contribution that goes a long way. That UN target of 0.7% is currently met only by the UK and five other countries from Europe and the Middle East. 

Take the average UK earner's salary, of around £27,500 a year. Of the £3128 they'll pay in tax, just £219 will be spent on overseas aid - funding everything from life-saving vaccinations to international volunteering programmes like ICS.

Learning how to have difficult conversations 

The workshop shared ideas around how to take action around UK Aid in their own communities – whether that’s through talking to their MP about why they care about our commitments to the world’s poorest or hosting a photo exhibition on the good news stories behind UK Aid. 

We gave them a crash course in public speaking. We talked them through answering difficult questions around aid. And we showed them the research that proves which stories and statistics the public resonate best with – and how to beat the anti-aid tabloid campaigns

And then we set them a challenge to try it out for themselves, in conversations with the public on the streets of Southend. Find out how they got on.

A woman talks with a volunteer out on a high street in Southend
© Jack Howson
Christine, a member of the public, talks with ICS volunteer Sarah about her son's experience in India

“Start by building a rapport. You’ll need it” 

Sarah Warren, 34 – Bangladesh, VSO, 2017 
Simon Sinclair, 29 – Togo, Y Care, 2014 and Tanzania, VSO, 2018 

Sarah: “It was a complete mix of reactions including those who didn’t know and those who didn’t care. Statistics and our personal stories worked best in convincing people of the value of UK Aid, as well as asking questions about their opinion.” 

Simon: “Our best result came from a chat at the end of the day with a woman called Christine. It just felt like a natural conversation. She gave her experience, we gave ours. Bringing in statistics – such as the UK’s 0.7% commitment to aid – to make our points really helped.” 

Sarah: “Success for us came through establishing a rapport with Christine, by talking about her son’s experience living in India. I strongly believe that as a nation we have more in common than that which divides us – and success in talking about aid comes from simply establishing that.” 

Two volunteers engage in a debate on the high street
© Jack Howson
Volunteers Luis and Shonesé focused their conversations on young people

“Everyone agreed our 0.7% commitment should be upped” 

Luis Nastili, 21 – Kenya, VSO, 2018 
Shonesé Howell, 25 – Kenya, VSO, 2018 

Shonesé: “We had a ‘route’ to our conversations which worked really well: to ask them what they knew about UK Aid and what they think the impact of it is. After revealing the truth, we’d then share our experiences and finally finish up with trying to recruit them to join ICS!” 

Luis: “Yeah. Once we knew what we were talking about, we had rhythm. I thought people would be unreceptive to our message, but while you do have to leave your ego at the door, the public were generally really interested. We even had one guy Google ICS while we were there talking to him!” 

Shonesé: “Talking to young people, as young people really helped us connect. And at the end of our chats, everyone said our 0.7% commitment to overseas aid should be increased, which is really reassuring. Now I’ve practiced I’ll definitely try to tackle conversations with another generation.” 

Three volunteers pose for a photo on a busy shopping street
© Jack Howson
Volunteers Miriam, Freda and Dani said it was less intimidating than they thought

“More money and more transparency is needed” 

Miriam Foreman, 19 – India, VSO, 2018 
Freda Nyame, 25 – Ghana, VSO, 2017 
Dani, 26 – India, VSO, 2018 

Miriam:"To anyone else who's considering approaching the public, I would say go for it. People are more receptive than you think and often enjoy just having a chat. It's important to remember people like being asked their point of view."

Dani: “Our trick was to let them talk as much as they wanted. We admitted early on that we weren’t selling anything or taking their details and that we were just doing some research. Although we had some props with us, boards showing some of the impact of UK Aid-funded projects, I think we’d avoid these next time – they just made people think we were out to collect direct debits.” 

Freda: “I was surprised that most people had a good knowledge of aid – but that while they didn’t know how much we were spending, they felt it was too much. What they wanted was more money getting into the right places and out of the hands of corrupt officials.” 

Two volunteers sit and write on sheets during a workshop
© Jack Howson
Racha and Natalie found bringing in their personal stories helped in their conversations

“Be ready to bring in stats and stories to back up your arguments”  

Natalie Cheung, 24 – Zambia, Challenges, 2017 and Togo, Y Care, 2017 
Racha Sobratee, 24 – Cambodia, VSO, 2015 

Racha: “People were really down to chat. Bringing in statistics had a big impact on our conversations – as did sharing our stories from our ICS placements. And although everyone said they had concerns about the transparency of overseas aid, they did say that they were happy to give.” 

Natalie: “Although it didn’t work for other groups, we found props were really helpful. The boards helped people realise we were there for a reason. Having an image that resonates with people quickly can be really useful at starting these conversations.” 

Racha: “One thing we would do differently next time would be to give them some more information at the end of the conversation – whether that’s a flyer or just a business card with a website for them to look at to find out more information for themselves.” 

Have you had conversations with friends, family or the public about UK Aid? Tell us what works and what doesn't in the comments below.

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