Changing the Public Conversation about Global Development

Photo By: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

By Tom Scott, director of Global Brand and Innovation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Scott will be speaking at a plenary session on Wednesday, June 11 at InterAction’s Forum 2014

There’s an old communications maxim that if you can name something, you can own the conversation around it. We see this all the time in our political discourse and even in culture and society. Think “War on Terror” or “Google” for that matter.

Sometimes things get named and it causes people to make deep associations with a general perception that isn’t positive, which is our situation today. While the public broadly believes that addressing the needs of the world’s poorest people is the right thing to do, there is a belief in our country and in key European nations that “Aid is wasted” and that progress is impossible.

It is this story that gets told over and over again.

Since last fall, a group of organizations* has been working together to determine not only if you can change the public conversation about development, but how to do it.  Can we reverse the declining public engagement which makes it harder to sustain support for development in tight economic times?

Over the last four months, this group conducted an intensive audit of the current communications frames used to talk about global development, and performed an in-depth, four country (US, UK, France and Germany) research project to understand better how to communicate with audiences in these geographies. The results—a comprehensive look at public opinion post-recession-- are sobering but also present clear opportunities for our sector.

The research confirmed some things we all already know. Huge skepticism exists around the effectiveness of development work. There is a sense that “nothing has changed” in 30 years. And public knowledge and understanding of our issues is poor.  

It also showed us that there is increasing urgency to reframe the way we are communicating about our work. The diagnosis is clear: we’re not doing enough to improve public perception of development.

Here are five things we need to know now about communicating with the public about global development.  

1.       The level of pessimism on our issues has created a toxic communications environment. People who oppose development and even those who are undecided, have never been more vitriolic or convinced that aid doesn’t work. And they are pulled by a powerful anti-aid narrative: “aid is wasted” that overpowers all other narratives in the public space.

2.       People know nothing about the incredible progress that has been made through development efforts over the last 30 years. But the facts alone can’t save us, and progress stories aren’t enough to convince people to support our cause. We need to connect with people around shared values—or we simply won’t connect at all.

3.       We are at a crossroads: supporters are fatigued, detractors are emboldened. If we continue with business as usual, we are at tremendous risk of eroding our base and not bringing any new voices into the conversation.

4.      There is hope. Helping the world’s poorest puts us on the right side of people’s individual belief system. Our research shows that people want to believe in development—they just don’t think it is being done well.

5.       We can dramatically grow our base of supporters. The Pros are with us, the Skeptics won’t budge, but Swings can be converted and make a real difference. In fact, the new research shows us that we have a major opportunity to grow our base of supporters if we commit to changing our narrative and committing to broad sector coordination and discipline.

The group will share the research broadly, starting this week at an InterAction workshop.

Changing a conversation about any subject is difficult. Moving perceptions about development is even harder. It will take time. It will take coordination. And it will take consistency.

But most important, it will take the willingness of a sector to come together and unite.

*Organizations involved in The Narrative Project include: Bond, Care, Comic Relief, DSW, The Global Poverty Project, InterAction, ONE, Oxfam, Path, Results, Save the Children US Global Leadership Coalition, United Nations Foundation, Welt Hunger Hilfe and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

This article is part of a special blogging series for InterAction Forum 2014. The blogs, authored by Forum 2014 speakers, will be published June 9-13. Read more blogs in the series, and check out live updates from the ForumFollow the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation @GatesFoundation or join in the conversation with #InterActionForum.