Saturday, 7 July 2012

Flying the Flag: Branding UK Aid and Public Diplomacy

On 25 June 2012 the UK's Department for International Development (DfID) unveiled plans to re-brand British overseas aid. "From today," declared the department's website (, "the new UK aid logo will be applied to items like emergency grain packets, schools and water pumps."  From now on, all recipients of aid will see the Union Flag and a statement that the aid comes "From the British people." 
My first thoughts on seeing this news were decidedly negative: surely such branding detracts from the act of giving? Don't we keep telling our students that in public diplomacy actions speak louder than words? 
Moreover, there is something faintly imperialist not only in using the Union Flag in this way, but also in reminding the recipents of the aid to be grateful to the British people - that they owe their clean water, health care, schools, etc. to the generosity of the developed world. 
A thoughtful commentary by Rob Crilly, the Daily Telegraph's Pakistan correspondent, questioned the value of branding British aid and considered that it might actually do more harm than good; that it may in fact undermine the credibility of the programme and that the "unbranded brand" has been sufficiently powerful and successful. He advocates, and I initially agreed, that we should let the aid speak for itself (    

However, having thought through the possible consequences of this decision for British public diplomacy, I had a change of heart and concluded that perhaps this rebranding exercise may just have a positive payoff after all. When the media correctly focuses on the problems caused by the invasions of, and continued wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention having to deal with the legacy of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib - public diplomacy disasters in their own right - the British and American governments have let slip through their fingers countless public diplomacy opportunities to remind audiences about their assistance to Muslim communities across the world (for example, NATO's intervention in Bosnia; the response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian ocean). This is needed to help counter the prevailing narratives that the UK and the US have co-operated in a war against Muslims and Islam.  So it is possible that the the new logo will go help to demonstrate to the international community that international assistance does not come from a faceless bureaucratic machinery or from governments, but from the people who have too many times been the victims of terrorist atrocities. It may have come too late - I am writing this blog on the seventh anniversary of Al-Qadea's terrorist attack in London - but it is a small step in rebalancing public diplomacy efforts towards a people-to-people strategy. Perhaps better late than never.

Yet flaws remain, and the most serious problem is that the British government has not explained the rebranding as a way of boosting the UK's public diplomacy. Rather, it seems designed to make the British people feel better about themselves. Unveiling the new logo, the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said:"For too long, Britain has not received the credit it deserves for the amazing results we achieve in tackling global poverty.... It is right that people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided ... And I am determined that, from now on, Britain will not shy away from celebrating and taking credit for them." In other words, it is all about the British receiving the gratitude of the people they are helping. 

So, the right action for the wrong reasons. Such explanations do fuel suspicion about British arrogance and ambition. Public diplomacy is not about taking credit; it is about building relationships. If the Secretary had noted that branding British aid helps to make connections between the source and the recipient, then the decision may have been received with more warmth.

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