Building a new narrative for international development

11 June 2015
Author: Tom Baker

Walking into European Development Days is like walking into a bubble, you can move from one talk about development to listening to a EU luminary making the case for what the European Commission will do in 2015. But step outside onto the streets of Brussels, or indeed any other capital across the EU member states and that pro-development bubble bursts quickly!

While this year’s Eurobarometer survey shows that Europeans continue to feel very positively about development cooperation – 67% of respondents across Europe think that development aid should be increased – with front page attacks on our aid budget in the UK press and European leaders struggling to reach agreement on aid targets, it feels like the level of public support and concern for development is very fragile.

And it matters, because much of our ability to push governments to deliver the big, bold and ambitious changes that we want to see, comes from them knowing that the public (or at least part of it) is supportive of what we're asking them to do. Our arguments can't just be factually and morally right, we need public support. Which is why we want to use the European Year for Development to change the way people think about international development.

Our session at European Development Days focused on how we can develop a narrative that builds that support. Alongside colleagues from Denmark and Ireland, we wanted to showcase research and examples that could help to to shift the conversation.

I wanted to make three key points...

1. There is confusion about the multiple causes and solutions to poverty.

The findings from our Change the Record research, the culmination of two years of work to understand what those in the UK thought about aid and development, showed the need for a clear, compelling and overarching narrative to counterbalance the negative perceptions of aid and development. Put simply, we need to tell a better story, something that the European Year for Development is attempting to do with its focus on storytelling.

2. We need to be more targeted about who we want to reach.

Our goal doesn't need to be to win 100% of public support; we simply to focus our efforts. Research from the Gates Foundation has shown that in the UK, France and Germany there is a significant percentage of the population, whose views on development "swing" – if we can win them over to our arguments we can double the number of people who think and feel more positively about development.

3. We need to find the right frames.

From the Finding Frames report, to the Gates Foundation Narrative Project, to research on how to talk about corruption without losing support, all the evidence shows that we need to talk about our work through a different set of frames. We need to highlight:

  • Independence – the end goal of all development is to help people to stand on their own two feet
  • Shared Values – people living in the world's poorest places have the same hopes and dreams as the rest of us, and that we have a moral obligation to help them reach their potential
  • Partnership – people in developing countries actively participate in making development programme work
  • Progress – supporting the other frames by educating the public about what has been achieved

Bond is working to deliver the European Year for Development in the UK. Drawing on our network in all its diversity and working with member organisations throughout the UK, we'll be linking up with other campaigns to carry out a range of activities around key moments in 2015. Find out more.

About the author

Tom Baker
Save the Children

Tom Baker is head of mobilisation at Save the Children UK, and previously worked at Bond, Tearfund and Christian Aid.