The current international debate on aid to Africa seems to assume that public opinion matters, i.e. it presupposes the existence of a ‘bottom-up’ relationship between public opinion and aid policy. This paper shows that it is rather the other way round. It is only possible to understand the relationship between decision-making on aid and public opinion as a ‘top-down’ relationship. The conclusion is supported by case studies of five European aid donors: France, the UK, Germany, Denmark and the European Union. The ‘missing link’ between opinion and policy-making is mainly to be explained by the high degree of centralisation of decision-making and the weak link between government and society in this particular policy field. On the other hand, opinion surveys show that there are strong popular sentiments in Europe in favour of ‘helping the poor’. Also, surveys indicate that European public opinion believes that emergency assistance basically is the rationale for development aid. The humanitarian attitudes in favour of ‘helping the poor’ find an outlet in the growing amount of emergency assistance going to Africa, thus leaving decision-making on development aid to the elite in a typical top-down way.