Framing aid with the U.S. public

Framing aid with the U.S. public

Framing matters: Messages about access to the basics – education, healthcare and WASH – are the most popular with the American public. But vaccine equity and climate change split Democrats and Republicans.

As part of the Spring Insight Series, co-convened with the United Nations Foundation, investigating U.S. attitudes to foreign aid and global poverty across the 50 states, this blog focuses on insights into messages that resonate with the U.S. public. This research builds on previous insight sessions Support For U.S. Foreign Aid & Leadership and provides high-level insights into Americans’ attitudes towards foreign aid, engagement with development, and messages that work to the US public against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and major domestic and international challenges.

The messages tested in this research reflect submissions from Partner organisations and the DEL research team. The content/frame of the messages varied across a number of topics, e.g. support for foreign aid, access to education, health and WASH; climate change, global cooperation, and women and girls. Respondents (n= 5,591) were presented with two randomly drawn messages from a pool of 63 (fieldwork completed between September 6-22, 2021) and were asked to indicate which statement they agreed with most, even if neither one was exactly right. Messages that were chosen more than 50% of the time are classified as better performing messages (i.e. more likely to be chosen, on average) and messages chosen less than 50% of the time were classified as poor(er) performing. Overall, the research found that attitudes to foreign aid and development are vary significantly by topic, but that messages around access to the basics – education, health and particularly WASH – are most popular with the American public.

Message ranking

For a full breakdown of which messages work best and worst with the U.S public please check out our full breakdown here: Complete League Table. Figure 1 and 2 show the top and bottom 10 performing messages respectively. Our results show that messages on water, sanitation, education and access to healthcare, were the top performing messages. The U.S. public routinely favoured frames which highlighted access to basic services. This was also true when messages highlighted both practical measures to reduce poverty and underpinning values of fairness and basic human rights.

A consistent finding within this experiment and other DEL research remains the negative perceptions of foreign aid itself: messages which listed ‘foreign aid’ or ‘assistance’ were routinely penalised and one of the least popular messages that were tested. The U.S. public also rejected the idea that foreign aid helps fight gender inequality and was the most unpopular message frame with just 23% of respondents selecting this message. This finding aligns with pandemic related research by DEL in 2020 that showed that messages that were inclusive and did not single out specific groups for support were more popular with respondents. Respondents also rejected messages where foreign aid was framed instrumentally, e.g. ‘foreign aid makes Americans more safe and secure’.
Another key finding is that public support for foreign aid is stronger when messages frame American efforts as part of a wider set of collective efforts. Americans want America to do as much, but not more, than other countries unearthing a strong sense of fairness and fair play in successful messages. For this same reason, ‘do more’ messages such as ‘The U.S. can be a global leader by doing more to help people in poorer countries get COVID-19 vaccines’ did not land well and was not viewed favourably by the US public.

One important finding around foreign aid related to the ‘charity begins at home/ America first’ arguments from aid critics. The message ‘We should ‘stop all aid to other countries while we deal with coronavirus in America’ was selected 35% of the time. However, the negative valence of this message – stopping aid while we deal with coronavirus – was rejected 65% of the time. It is a worthy proof point in countering ‘charity begins at home’ sentiments.

Messages for the masses and for key audiences

DEL’s research has identified the messages that work for all Americans, but our research also shows differences among key audience groups. As organisations well know, speaking directly to specific group concerns is also an essential communication strategy. Figure 3 shows the key messages for different audience groups. Younger voters consistently responded more favourably to messages which emphasised tackling the climate emergency to safeguard global development. Lower income group voters consistently responded more favourably to inclusive frames to development and highlighted the US’s role in vaccine equality. Female voters consistently emphasised the need for the US to engage with international bodies and partners to solve global crises collaboratively.

Inclusive framing: How to speak to Republicans and Democrats

Finding messages that resonate with both Republicans and Democrats remains one of the biggest challenges for development communicators given the current polarised nature of U.S. politics. DEL has identified a number of inclusive frames which were most agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats, including support for WASH, with 56% support for Democrats and 62% support for Republicans.

Figure 4 below charts those frames which were chosen more frequently according to political affiliation and maps topics of partisanship and bipartisan support. Results higher then ‘0’ are frames which were viewed more favourably and chosen more often. Although there remains a high level of variation across topics bipartisan support for WASH and access to education and healthcare are robust. However, other frames were found have a more divisive effect. Vaccine access and equity is a positive message for Democrats, but negative for Republicans. The same is true for messages around climate change and the environment.


Communicating foreign aid within a fractured political landscape is a huge challenge for development communicators. However it is clear, despite global challenges, the American public are not turning inward and are unified behind a model of foreign aid which speaks to their values of fairness and basic human rights. Messages that speak to access to basic services (WASH, education, health) work for all audience groups. Vaccine equity and climate split partisan groups, and gender equity works for neither group. This DEL resource enables development communicators to work more effectively with key audiences to make the case for foreign aid.

Written by

Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson

Professor of Political Behaviour at University College London (UCL)

David Hudson

David Hudson

Professor of Politics and Development in the University of Birmingham

Soomin Oh

Soomin Oh

Soomin Oh is a postdoctoral research fellow at Development Engagement Lab. Her research focuses on the political economy of development and looks at the patterns of international and domestic redistribution. She has worked on impact evaluations of development projects in collaboration with USAID and the World Bank in the West Bank, Nepal, and Tajikistan. Soomin received her PhD in Political Science from Duke University, specialising in Political Economy.

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