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Worlds of Communication 

When the OECD reviews the development co-operation efforts of its members, it also assesses how they communicate. This post draws lessons from recent reviews of Portugal, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Japan.  

Is there a universal formula for successful SDG communication? Probably not. Different cultural and media environments require very different communication strategies. That being said, great ideas have few boundaries: there is so much that we SDG communicators can learn from the experiences of other countries.  

Peer learning is one of the principles that drives the work of the OECD, and its Development Assistance Committee (DAC) periodically reviews the development co-operation efforts of its member countries. What’s more, these DAC Peer Reviews often assess how countries approach development communication and global citizenship education. Let’s take a closer look at what the most recent Peer Reviews say about these issues.  

How can public support for development co-operation translate into higher aid volumes?  

According to the latest Peer Review of Portugal (Peer Review April 2022), 71% of citizens think that development co-operation should be a government priority. Yet, this strong public and political support does not translate into higher levels of official development assistance (ODA). During the financial crisis more than a decade ago, ODA investments plummeted to below 0.2% of Portugal’s GDP and have never really recovered.  

So what does this mean for the communications team of Camões, the agency charged with co-ordinating the country’s aid efforts? How can it make the case for more aid spending with both political institutions and the public? The Review encourages the government to provide communicators with more resources. It also calls on communicators to adopt a new narrative, explaining that development efforts are a long-term investment that helps the world achieve sustainable development.  

In Denmark (Peer Review September 2021), citizens are also broadly supportive of development co-operation and ODA. The government’s communication efforts seek to build support by engaging young people and targeting citizens who have traditionally been sceptical about ODA. Yet, the country’s public communicators face a big challenge: political leaders often focus on development co-operation as a way to prevent irregular migration into Denmark. This line of argumentation can be contentious, and is not necessarily effective in building public support. The Review encourages Denmark to: 

  • Develop a broader and longer-term narrative on the benefits of a stable, just, sustainable and prosperous planet.  
  • Use growing public concerns about climate change as an opportunity to focus on the need for global solidarity. 

How can communication engage citizens and encourage behavioural change? 

In Germany (Peer Review June 2021), about 90% of citizens consider development co-operation and helping people in development countries as important. German students, for instance, are significantly more aware of global issues than their peers in other OECD countries. The government is highly committed to global awareness and development education and almost doubled its budget in these areas to EUR 45 million from 2015 to 2020. There have also been strong nation-wide campaigns such as the “17 Projections”.) 

This then raises the question: to what extent does citizen awareness lead to citizen engagement? Recent research found the majority of German citizens to be either “marginally engaged” or even “totally disengaged” in development (engagement here includes both low-cost actions like watching the news or transactional actions like occasional donations). In light of this gap between awareness and engagement, the Peer Review suggests that communicators focus more specifically on encouraging behavioural change.  

How can communications balance success stories with a description of the risks and challenges? 

Belgium (Peer Review November 2020) gets full marks from Review authors for an “exemplary commitment to education for global citizenship”. In view of successful efforts to spread knowledge, raise awareness and promote global citizenship values, the Review identifies a series of existing good practices:  

  • The Belgian approach simultaneously targets multiplier groups (like the media or politicians) and young people. 
  • Systematic evaluation identifies lessons learnt and contributes to steady improvement of communications.  
  • Strategic co-ordination unites the efforts of government, schools, media, communities, and civil society.  

This work is funded solidly, with an average of 1.46% of the ODA budget being spent on global education every year. These efforts have contributed to high public support for ODA (87%). Yet, the Review also points out a longer-term challenge: the country’s narrative on aid is highly concentrated on success stories and tends to ignore the risks and problems of development co-operation. The Review suggests that Belgian communicators add a dose of realism to sufficiently prepare their audience for possible setbacks (Remember our event about “How and why to communicate about development results”). 

Communicators in the United Kingdom (Peer Review November 2020) face a somewhat conflicted environment: on the one hand, there is strong public support for development co-operation (89%); on the other hand, there exists what the Peer Review describes as “inflammatory and hostile elements of the UK media”. As a result, communicators invest a lot of energy in proactively defending development co-operation efforts from public criticism, through fact checking, refuting claims and tackling critics.  

Drawing on research and data on public attitudes, the Department for International Development (which has since been merged into the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) developed several creative communication formats tailored to different target groups like journalists, policy makers and the wider public. Its Aid Match scheme, for example, rewards successful public engagement by doubling funds raised by charities for development projects. Yet, communication tends to be aid-centric, focusing on what aid can achieve in terms of charity. The authors of the Review encourage UK communicators to give more emphasis to promoting global citizenship. 

How can communications tap into pop culture? 

The challenges for communicators in Japan (Peer Review October 2020) are of a different kind. Here, public awareness of and public support for ODA are traditionally very low. It may be true that support for ODA has tripled during the last decade, but, as the Review points out, that still leaves it at a meagre 30%.  

To improve on this, Japanese development communicators have embarked on a strategy that associates ODA issues with popular culture. 

  • In 2018, they introduced the popular Hello Kitty character as an ODA ambassador; and they later employed a popular anime character to act as “ODA-Man” (read our piece on the ODA-Man campaign).  
  • Japan’s development community regularly stages “infotainment” events like the Global Plazas or the Japan Global Festa to attract and inform a broader public.  
  • SDG awards given to companies, schools or local governments who are promoting the SDGs are another element of this entertainment-oriented approach.  

The Peer Review authors question whether the Japanese strategy carries the risk of trivialising some aspects of development. In anticipation, they encourage communicators not to limit their focus solely on what is popular with a broad audience. (For another example of SDG communication efforts in Japan, check out “JICA’s World”.) 

Conclusion 

This brief overview shows a wide selection of challenges that may be country-specific but are also shared by development communicators globally. In many countries, public support for development co-operation does not translate into a willingness to commit resources (see Portugal); public discussions may be distorted by one all-dominating topic (Denmark); part of the media may cultivate widespread hostility (UK); a well-meaning, but passive population may be content to pay lip service to development co-operation (Germany); or citizens may not understand why they should be listening to you at all (Japan).  

Sharing experiences and advice can show us both the road well-travelled and a clear way ahead. That is the idea behind OECD Peer Reviews and what the SDG Communicator is all about. Stay with us! 

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