The public needs the bigger picture for UK aid to survive

14 June 2017

Foreign aid enthusiasts should consider themselves lucky that their budget battleground wasn’t bloodier. U-turns, absent numbers and a leaked manifesto – at least most parties pledged to keep the UK’s commitment 0.7% of GDP to aid.

But the Conservatives’ call for definitions of aid to change, for better or worse, proposes a shake-up to the Department of International Development (DFID). It has become a target for newspapers and commentators to advocate for budget cuts when national services need funding – especially when an estimated 1.1 million Britons use food banks.

The public lacks the understanding of what the budget is spent on, and it’s down to the ledger line rarely present – communications. DFID and those that receive some of its 13 billion pound budget need to give voters the bigger picture if aid is to shake-off its reputation as negotiable.

Out of sight out of mind 

Unlike health, education or transport, aid is not a service that you see or experience every day in the UK. This means communicators should be working even harder to tell us what the budget is being used for and how it relates to the wider work of the government, and the world. The Sustainable Development Goals are a good starting point for creative campaigns, led by organisations such as The Global Goals (that Spice Girls video) and ONE, but at a government level awareness remains low to those unconnected to the work. Opinion polls show that people believe it’s important, but would a more in-depth poll reveal an understanding of its impact?     

Change happened, aid got left behind 

The resources behind marketing and communications campaigns of the public and private sector are incomparable, but the overall objectives should be the same; convince people that what you’re selling is worth parting money for. At present, it remains to be seen about convincing state donors – even though they are funded by the public – that a project is working and therefore value for money. But this legacy of communications as the lovechild of quarterly reports, riddled with jargon, written for a target audience already working in the sector, are generally indigestible to the general public and it needs to stop, otherwise the funding will. Was the closure of the Development Awareness Fund in 2012 an indicator of the lack of interest from the top?  

Things in the last 10 years have changed. Social media hasn’t just connected brands to their customers and celebrities to their fans, but also governments to their citizens. This has changed the landscape of accountability and the expectations of everyday people. The UK government should be given credit for the presence of MPs and secretaries on social media. Then again, DFID’s in-country and national twitter accounts are aimed at the specialist, not the generalist – which is where you’ll find everyone. 

This evolution of the media leads us to a changing model (and some jargon). To borrow from business, aid used to be a Business to Business (B2B) model: DFID and those who receive money would bid for work, receive funds, run a programme, and report back to the purse holder. Now it’s a Business to Consumer model (B2C) driven by the growth of digital and social media. The public has an ever-increasing influence on how money is spent, especially when aid is brought into election campaigns. Now DFID, and those who receive money are under increasing pressure to bid for work, receive funds, run a programme, report back to the government and the public. 

Against aid cuts? Cut the jargon and stop underestimating people 

International Development is a complex concept. In practice, it’s even harder. Add the words only heard in lecture theatres and donor meetings and it’s a foreign language.

The charities that have diversified their incomes with public donations are (almost) exempt. Some organisations have invested in cutting-edge technology like virtual reality to tell the public of their work, but how many headsets do you see in people’s houses? We know children in harrowing situations can change public empathy, but does it increase public understanding? Empathy passes but understanding remains forever. So in the case of conflict prevention, no easy programme to manage or story to tell, the money may be spent well, we just hear nothing of it (unless you include .pdf downloads). Communicators need to tell share stories in easy-to-find arenas and with accessible messaging. 

This election will be a turning point for UK Aid and hopefully an opportunity to come out of the shadows of "British goodwill". The UK government has been funding impactful programmes for 20 years. This needs to be made public. 

An episode of the Secret Life of Four Year Olds or Gogglesprogs serves as a strong reminder that people understand a lot more than you think; they just need to see where it fits into the bigger picture.  

Want to break the cycle of introverted communications? Get practical 

  • Invest in communications; it’s as important as Monitoring and Evaluation!
  • Stop using the formulaic: problem, intervention, solution. It works for annual reports but not for the general public 
  • Strip back the jargon when pitching to journalists. There is every chance your story fits the global news agenda, don’t package it as ‘development news’
  • Go bigger than specialized media otherwise you’re preaching to the converted. Think about it as a conversation in the pub – you are telling an interesting topical story to a general audience. Leave the jargon for conferences! 
  • Get people thinking differently: Facebook live, hackathon, twitter chat – there are more and more ways to reach people than press releases - lots of them! 
  • Social media is not a warehouse! Don’t be surprised when your case study gets three likes (mum, dad, aunt). Why should anyone read this story? How are you leading people to it? What’s their experience when you get there? 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of Bond or the Thomson Reuters Foundation. This blog was first published on the Thomson Reuters Foundation website.

About the author

Melissa Paramasivan
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Mel Paramasivan is a communications manager at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She has worked in communications for non-profit, private and public organisations in Europe and Africa.