This was the response to me from a colleague who is a prominent UK stakeholder describing the findings of a study recently released by InterMedia, entitled Building Support for International Development (BSID). In the research, we explored engagement in international development (what governments do to alleviate poverty and improve living conditions in the poorest developing nations) among nearly 4,000 interested citizens, 40 government decision makers and 88 influentials, including bloggers across China, France, Germany, the US and the UK.
Specifically we looked at whether or not an "engaged public" (those who are interested in these issues), government decision makers, and those who are influential with their peers online and offline truly understands what aid is, and what it accomplishes. We also looked, then, at how best to tell the story about aid to developing countries; how we can communicate about aid in a way that people understand and are encouraged to act upon.
Hopefully, when my colleague said there were "no surprises" he did not mean he believes that there is no need to do anything or there is no desire to do anything or nothing can be done to improve the situation.
I would like to speak directly to those managing communications in the international development sector and reflect here with those who work to communicate about aid on what is acceptable in terms of the status quo in communication practices, information patterns, and the use of media resources and challenge us to consider what might be done to respond to the insights highlighted in the research.
What can be done now or how might we think differently about building support for foreign aid?
As a start, here are ten pointers for those who work in information management and communications about how we communicate about aid:
1/ Use language that is understandable to citizens. Most people do not understand the insider vocabulary of the sector, including terms like international development, food security, global health and governance. This challenge is consistent with the counsel of Darnton & Kirk (2011) in their fine report, Finding Frames, where the authors advocate a clearer values orientation in the language and communications of international development.
2/ Instill a deep understanding and appreciation for the objectives of international development when people are young and where values are nurtured – in the family, in schools and in faith-based organizations. The challenge is to present international development less as a zero-sum game (between domestic and foreign programs/assistance) and more as part of mutually beneficial initiatives in an increasingly interdependent and globalized world. Building a solid understanding when people are adults or eligible to vote is more difficult. Further, most people’s reference point for international development is the media coverage and appeals focused on disasters and humanitarian relief efforts rather than the complex issues of trade, aid, debt and corruption.
3/ Approach engagement with international development as a multi-dimensional rather than a uni-dimensional experience and set out to measure it accordingly. The motivations for citizens to become involved are as varied as are the activities - volunteering, donating, petitioning, protesting etc., and the attitudinal stance towards international development – i.e. whether I understand the lives of others and their future as directly connected to my future or not – is the foundation of that motivation.
4/ Respond more prominently and creatively to citizens’ appetite to see the impact of the work that is being done. At present, although varying by country, many think the investment is not making enough of a difference and that their governments need to do more. It is important to achieve a greater balance between the focus on the return on the investment rather than on the cost of the investment.
5/ Do not underestimate the challenge of leveraging public opinion as a means to influence policy, since only a minority of policy-makers consistently take public opinion into account when forming policies. Currently, the vast majority pays attention to public opinion, but bases policy decisions primarily on other factors. Under the weight of the financial crisis, the force of public opinion may increase as nations more publicly exercise tough choices about spending on domestic versus non-domestic priorities.
6/ Facilitate more effective information and data gathering and sharing strategies for government decision makers. Consider that the Government Decision-Makers in the BSID study report simultaneously of information overload and data deprivation. This reaction is not unlike that of their counterparts in Ghana, Kenya and Zambia of whom InterMedia asked similar questions in 2009/2010 as part of the AudienceScapes research initiative. In addition, the BSID Government Decision-Makers report being heavily reliant on their personal connections and having limited opportunities for interaction with other interested figures in the field.
7/ Strengthen the communications about the resources and position of southern institutions (developing countries) as centres of excellence in international development. There is a blatant imbalance in the north-south knowledge production dynamic. None of the 40 government decision makers mentioned any southern institutions or individuals based at southern institutions as sources of information on international development.
8/ Optimise the unique value of the various contributors to the international development information environment. INGOs are especially valued for their field credibility, mainstream mass media are perceived to provide important contextual information, bloggers are regarded as crucial counter-points to mainstream thinking, while multi-laterals and universities are relied on for their data and analyses respectively. Close examination of the networks in the digital information environment where these various players share and gather information will unearth valuable insights to achieve this optimisation.
9/ Establish protocols regarding the information management and communications of international development (akin to the MDGs framework) so that there is greater consensus on what success looks like at the policy, influentials and citizen level in the south and in the north. What are achievable benchmarks in terms of citizen’s knowledge of the various facets of international development? How much should public opinion be driven by facts versus emotions? Which behaviours and levels of activity are appropriate and desirable as evidence of citizen support for international development?
10/ Consider a formal seat at the table for the private sector, not included in this study. This is particularly important in the context of the multi-sectoral challenges of decreasing supplies of food and water (and the concomitant threat of mass migration), terrorism and global economic instability. Visionary work by the International HIV/AIDs Alliance and others to understand the modalities of social bonds, impact investing and new forms of philanthropy is invaluable to a more broad-based engagement with international development in the future.
These important steps warrant further discussion and coordinated action if we are going to be able, concretely, to surprise my colleague , the prominent UK stakeholder, when the questions of engagement with international development are re-assessed in 2015.
Do you have thoughts to share? Ideas? You can join the discussion about effective engagement on global development issues at Audience Scapes.