Reflecting reality

Angola is one of the world's poorest countries. Communicating an accurate picture of how development aid works, but raising the necessary funds is one of the sector's biggest challenges.

Building new responses

10 August 2015
Author: Tim Sowula

There has been a lot of coverage of development aid in the UK media in the last few weeks, most of it negative. There was the Sun’s article highlighting various ‘frivolous’ projects, BBC’s File on 4 documentary, The Aid Business, examining the risks of corruption, and the Times front page article criticising the government’s £0.5 billion donation to the Global Fund, which it claims was rushed through in order to meet the 0.7% target.  Meanwhile DFID’s announcement of its plan to award £735m to the CDC group for private sector projects met with protests from groups such as Global Justice Now.

The tone of the coverage should be a matter of concern for those who are interested in the struggle to end global poverty and injustice and especially those who work for aid and development organisations.  It is a good time to consider how widely opinions differ about how funding for international development projects can be described, let alone what the money should actually be for. It’s remarkable that a relatively mature, well-funded sector can still suffer from such huge public confusion around its common terminology and purpose.

People by and large share a common understanding of what a school, a hospital, a tank or a road is. Ask about the aid budget and you’re essentially saying “cat, meet pigeons”.

A recent Bond research project Change the Record analysed two years’ worth of some of the UK’s print media coverage of international development projects and spending. One of the key themes that emerged was that there is ‘confusion in the public’s mind around the causes of and solutions to poverty in developing countries’.

During this time, Think Global, in collaboration with Bond, arranged the workshop: ‘UK Public Attitudes to Development: Building New Responses’. By happy coincidence the workshop was arranged a few days after the Sun, the UK’s biggest selling newspaper, unleashed a broadside against ‘wasteful’ spending on overseas development projects by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: UK taxes blown on lonely fish in Africa.

At the workshop, funded by DEEEP4, delegates explored a toolkit that had been prepared by Bond and Think Global in response to the public confusion on development. It’s designed to help organisations to reflect on their communications practice and ‘build new responses’ against perceptions of corruption and ineffectiveness. It has helpful practice and processes to encourage communications professionals to operate within a common narrative that research suggests may alter public thinking.

However, the biggest ‘touch points’ that the UK general public has with international development issues are either connected to a humanitarian crisis or TV fundraising appeals. These appeals are primarily designed to raise money. What encourages people to get their wallets out is a presentation of poverty and its effects, and development solutions that are so grossly simplified and unrepresentative of the actual sector that they are frustrating for an informed viewer to watch. But these appeals really do work.

In my view the core problem faced by international development communications professionals is this: how do we succeed in ‘changing the record’ to present a more realistic view of international development, with more accurate language, whilst continuing to raise the millions?

Bombarded by a dependency theory of ‘aid’ promoted by the big TV appeals, it’s little wonder that for the UK taxpayer the majority of actual international development projects could be seen as unnecessary or wasteful. But unless the entire sector can agree to fundamentally change its approach, accepting the potential risks that would entail, I struggle to see how we can really alter the narrative.

Surely the agencies that are granted the privilege of prime-time exposure on mass-audience channels have a responsibility to use the opportunity to explain what international development is really about? And surely we all share the responsibility for ensuring our communications reflect reality?

Tim writes in a personal capacity. Bond has a programme of work to help its members understand public attitudes towards aid and development and explore ways to change the narrative.

About the author

Tim Sowula portrait
British Council

As a senior press officer, Tim manages UK media relations for the British Council's Education and Society business unit, developing and delivering external communications strategies across media for a portfolio of global programmes.