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.
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 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:
- Public engagement builds support and makes development policies more effective.
- Improving communication increases transparency.
- Understand your audience.
- Have a clear, strategic vision.
- Develop and deliver a coherent narrative.
- Communicate results – good and bad.
- Leverage partnerships to achieve objectives.
- Make room for creativity and innovation.
- Ensure branding is appropriate.
- Promote communication and co-ordination institutionally.
- Match resources and expertise with ambition.
- 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.
OECD Development Centre work on communication and development