Engaging people: 12 lessons for communicating about development

12-lessonsToday’s post is from Erik Solheim, Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, and Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, Chair of the Governing Board of the OECD Development Centre.

The financial commitment to development co-operation has never been higher. In 2013, the global total reached USD 135 billion. For the first time ever, the United Kingdom reached the target of 0.7% of national income, and this happened in times of great economic austerity. Turkey – a middle-income country – increased its official development assistance more than any other European country and is now above the OECD average. And Ireland continued its commitment to fighting global hunger — even with a severe economic crisis at home — founded on a strong public and political consensus regarding the importance of helping the world’s poorest people.

These extraordinary achievements would not have been possible without leadership and strong public support. People support development co-operation out of solidarity with people who have less. Development co-operation must therefore inspire – and be able to withstand – critical assessment from the public.

This means we must be better at telling people what an enormous success story global development has been. Extreme poverty has been halved in a few decades, bringing more than 600 million people out of poverty in China alone. The mortality rate for children under the age of five has been almost halved, saving 17,000 children every day. Life expectancy will soon pass 70 years.

Success is inspiring. It leads to support. But development partners must also be better at explaining their failures. Why did the international community fail to react at an early stage to the political crisis in South Sudan, which eventually led to ethnic warfare and a humanitarian crisis? Why did we fail to contain Ebola in its early phases in the three most affected West African countries? Public debate should be informed by facts. Criticism is a good thing when it brings the world forward.

Countries also provide official development assistance out of enlightened national interest. It is in everyone’s interest to have a planet that is not wrecked by climate change, deforestation and the pollution of our rivers and oceans. Peace and prosperity in one part of the world increase trade and reduce the risk of drug trafficking, conflict and terrorism in others. The effects are felt by developed and developing countries alike. Development co-operation is an opportunity to exert leadership in the world. It should be an integral part of foreign affairs and national strategy.

Leadership is essential. It inspires others and encourages people to take control of the future they want. President Obama’s Power Africa initiative brings US companies together to provide clean energy to Sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of the population is without electricity. Norway is working with Brazil, Indonesia and other rainforest countries to reduce deforestation under the UN-REDD initiative. President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo broke ground by announcing a tax-per-barrel on oil to fight childhood malnutrition across the world as part of French-initiated Unitaid financing scheme!

Development co-operation can also be risky. Most people understand this. It is obviously safer to provide loans for hydropower development in China or Brazil than it is to support the government of the Central African Republic in providing basic services. Yet donors have committed to supporting fragile states, following the priorities of recipient governments and using country systems. Providers of development co-operation should not be afraid of explaining risk and helping people understand why it is important to work in difficult places. Working together also reduces risk. It is easier for a minister or an aid agency to explain why development co-operation is supporting the judicial system in Somalia when people know that this is what the Somali government has requested and that the European Union, the United States and Turkey support the same thing.

We welcome and endorse these 12 Lessons for Engaging with the Public, published today:

  1. Public engagement builds support and makes development policies more effective.
  2. Improving communication increases transparency.
  3. Understand your audience.
  4. Have a clear, strategic vision.
  5. Develop and deliver a coherent narrative.
  6. Communicate results – good and bad.
  7. Leverage partnerships to achieve objectives.
  8. Make room for creativity and innovation.
  9. Ensure branding is appropriate.
  10. Promote communication and co-ordination institutionally.
  11. Match resources and expertise with ambition.
  12. Evaluate and learn from experience.

The lessons are based on evidence and experience from Development Assistance Committee (DAC) peer reviews and from the Network of DAC Development Communicators, which the OECD Development Centre hosts and co-ordinates. The 12 Lessons offer policy makers a timely and important reminder that public support for development co-operation can never be taken for granted. They tell us that we need to be more humble when we engage with citizens and taxpayers to ensure that our efforts speak to what people think and know.

As accountable policy makers, we need to share information in a meaningful, timely and accessible way. We need to ensure that development co-operation ministries and agencies enable success by acknowledging the strategic importance of communication, awareness-raising and development education, and that they invest time, money and capacity in these activities.

Public debate around development co-operation needs to be broader and more open to better reflect the new world we live in. At the same time, we must learn to be more positive and engaging. No one has heard of a successful company advertising that the world is going under, their customers are worse off than ever, and that their products often fail!

Let’s take a cue from these 12 Lessons and use them to communicate about the positive, life-saving results of development co-operation.

Useful links

OECD work on development

OECD Development Centre work on communication and development

From aid to development (OECD Insights)

Guest author

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