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Benjamin Day, ‘Political Attention and Aid Policy Change: Lessons for Aid Advocacy From the Aid Spending Expansions in Australia and the United Kingdom’, Development Policy Centre Discussion Paper No. 71, Canberra: Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, September 2018.
What leads a donor to change the trajectory of its aid policy? Surprisingly little is known about the political dynamics that drive the aid policy decision making process. Notwithstanding recent advances, the role public opinion plays in shaping aid policy remains poorly understood, as does the role political actors play in initiating such change. The role of advocacy efforts in driving change are also unsettled. This paper engages in these ongoing debates by drawing on the agenda-setting literature to highlight the crucial role political attention plays in shaping the political dynamics of the aid policy subsystem. The central claim the paper makes is that instances of high-level aid policy change are driven by top-down, political actor-led processes, rather than bottom-up processes triggered by changes in public attitudes towards aid, as is commonly assumed. This argument is substantiated theoretically by outlining how the politics of attention play out in the aid policy subsystem, and empirically by examining the dramatic aid spending expansions that occurred roughly in parallel in Australia and the United Kingdom during the mid-2000s and into the 2010s. Finally, suggestions are made as to how aid advocates can contribute to cultivating top-down aid policy change.