Yes, they do know it’s Christmas, but it’s Ebola they’re worried about

I hope he'll be OK
I hope he’ll be OK

Would you like to smell like Zinedine Zidane? A few years ago, a French perfume maker thought many of us would, and paid the football star to sell its manly mixture. Apparently many of us wouldn’t, and the ads soon disappeared. If you get the right person sending the right message though, stars can be very useful. On Monday, I moderated a panel discussion here at the OECD on “communicating in a crisis”, and one of the panellists described a successful campaign in Côte d’Ivoire using another football hero, Didier Drogba, to convince people to wash their hands and take other elementary precautions to stop the Ebola virus spreading. This worked because Drogba is a local boy and clearly knows and cares about the cause he was promoting. When he was criticised by some media for not going to the national squad’s match, he said he thought fighting Ebola was more important than a football game.

Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t have any Ebola cases, but its neighbours do, so it makes sense to be careful. Does it make sense to announce you’re stopping flights to Nairobi, because of Ebola? Or to cancel filming in Morocco in case Superman and Batman catch the disease? Both of these places are half a continent away from the affected areas, as far as Los Angeles from Guatemala. As one panellist pointed out, it’s as if you closed Paris airports because of fighting in the Ukraine.

The panel discussion was part of the annual meeting of the DevCom network, organised by the OECD Development Centre. The meeting gives the heads of communication of government ministries and others working on development the chance to share their experiences. The discussions covered broad issues such as communicating on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the new set of goals that will replace the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after 2015; and day-to-day questions like how much to spend on social media and should you pay vloggers (yes).

For an outsider like me, the jargon can be an obstacle to understanding, but since these were experts talking to each other, it’s probably not an issue in this kind of meeting. Even so, when one speaker introduced herself as coming from NORAD, I initially thought she was from the North American Aeorospace Defense Command, whose job is to combat intercontinental ballistic missile attacks and track Santa.

The speaker was doing neither, but she did tell us about the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation’s efforts to combat stereotyping. They helped fund a charity single and video featuring singers cooing about the less fortunate. In this case Africans urging their citizens to help cold, miserable Norway. If you haven’t seen it, here it is:

The video is hilarious, but it makes a serious point about how a certain perspective dominates the media. Most people here don’t know much about what’s happening in developing countries (or practically any other country either) except for a few sensational stories or something that might affect them directly. The same is true in the developing countries too, but given the mistrust of the authorities and national media, stories reported by foreigners can have a disproportionate impact. When, for example, local officials are saying not to ostracise Ebola victims but the radio reports that in the US a person cured of the disease was forced to stay at home for weeks, or that in Spain they shot the dog of a nurse who was also cured, you have to start trying to convince people all over again.

Some actions cost little or nothing, changing an Ebola-linked programme’s name from “Dead body disposal” to “Safe and dignified burial” for instance, but around the room, everybody agreed that in times of budget cuts, one of the hardest arguments for development communication was convincing the taxpayer that they should be spending money abroad rather than at home. Britain’s Daily Mail ran this headline the other day: “As Somerset faces new floods, we’re set to pay £600m for Third World flood defences… Tory MPs’ fury at new aid giveaway”. And yet, support for development aid does not seem to have been damaged as much as you might expect by the crisis, even though it has declined in some countries. In Ireland for instance, one of the countries hardest hit by the 2007 financial meltdown, a poll in August this year showed that 75% of respondents agree that “people in Ireland have an obligation to invest in overseas aid, even in times of economic recession”; and that 77% of people feel that “it is important for Ireland’s reputation that we keep the promise that 0.7% of national income should be invested in Overseas Aid”, an increase of 4% from 2013 results.

The Irish survey, and similar ones in other countries, also show that most people don’t know how much they’re actually spending on aid. On average, the Irish thought the government was spending 20 times more than it actually does. But even among experts, what you know and what you think is important can vary significantly. One DevCom member told us that some foundations and other philanthropic institutions who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in development projects don’t pay much attention to the SDGs mentioned above.

One of the aims of the DevCom annual meeting was for members to decide on what they want to do over the next year or so and what resources they will provide to do this. I hope they reach a satisfactory agreement, so they can succeed in their main purpose, helping “strengthen public engagement and communication about development”. Especially when you see that among the alternatives are the likes of Sinead O’Connor telling people who don’t agree with her about the Do they know it’s Christmas charity single to “Shut the f*** up”, and presumably do what the pop stars and other loud mouths tell them.

Useful links

Engaging with the Public: Twelve Lessons from DAC Peer Reviews

Venture philanthropy in development from netFWD, the OECD-hosted Global Network of Foundations Working for Development.

Information on Ebola from SWAC, the OECD Sahel and West Africa Club

The first clinical tests on an Ebola treatment will be starting in Médecins sans frontières (Doctors without bordes) projects in December. MSF can pay for two beds in their treatment centres for 150 euros.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Ebola response

Patrick Love

3 comments to “Yes, they do know it’s Christmas, but it’s Ebola they’re worried about”

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  1. tom schuller - 27/11/2014 Reply

    interesting stuff- but where’s the video link?

  2. Patrick Love - 27/11/2014 Reply

    Tom, the video should appear automatically in the text. Here’s the Youtube link


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