Learning Area 4: Messages

How should we frame messages and who are the best messengers?


Once they have chosen their strategic goals, narratives and audiences, communicators must decide how to frame their messages. This means reflecting on what image they want to project about their work, which emotions they want to trigger, and who is best placed to deliver their messages.

In recent years, the development community has become more aware of how its frames can have harmful consequences. Even if chosen with good intentions, frames can perpetuate negative stereotypes and reinforce a “them-and-us” world view. They can also leave audiences feeling that development efforts are futile.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, engaging citizens for sustainable development will require inspiring, actionable and respectful frames, highlighting shared values and challenges, promoting hope, and demonstrating the value of global solidarity and collaboration.

Infographic - 10 dos and don'ts in development messaging


Development work has often been framed using imagery of helplessness and destitution. When such images come alongside pictures of Western celebrities delivering aid or diplomats “raising flags”, they represent and reinforce the “white-saviour narrative.

Some development organisations also play on fears to explain why their work matters, suggesting – often implicitly – that development work helps “protect” citizens in wealthy countries from “foreign dangers” like migration, disease or terrorism.

In the short term, such negative frames can garner donations or support from some constituencies. In the long term, they may undermine global solidarity. They suggest that, despite decades of spending, nothing has changed. They reinforce racist stereotypes and highlight differences between “them” and “us”, undermining the notion of shared goals and values.

This is why many communicators are adopting inspirational, actionable and respectful messages.

  • More positive and inspirational messages are better at motivating people to change their attitudes and behaviours than negative messages based on fear and guilt. To promote hope and counter “aid fatigue”, communicators can focus on shared achievements and solutions for a better future. They can also highlight the ‘bigger us’ rather than stories that divide society into ‘us-and-them’.
  • Messages also need to be actionable. For a start, this means making development work more accessible – with clearer language and less jargon – and sharing stories from messengers that audiences trust. Being useful also means creating campaigns that show audiences how to participate in our work and take individual action
  • The need for more respectful messaging is part of a crucial wider discussion on racism, diversity and representation in the development community. It also means adopting humble and sincere frames: development organisations are part of a broader, global partnership; there are setbacks, but we are professional and constantly learning how to improve.


  1. Visit the Development Compass – a partnership between the Development Engagement Lab and DevCom – for advice on framing based on public attitudes surveys, data and research.
  2. Read How to Communicate the World, a Social Media Guide for Volunteers and Travelers with principles to keep in mind and a checklist for posting on social media.
  3. Explore the Frameworks Institute’s website to find toolkits, articles and reports on framing conversations around many specific development issues.
  4. Consider diverse sources when adding stock images to messages, such as tonl.co, stocksy.com, createherstock.com, or Getty Images’ #ShowUs collection.


The Africa No Filter initiative supports storytellers in Africa who work to change harmful stereotypes within and about Africa.  

Sweden’s SIDA teamed up with YouTuber Clara Henry to engage younger audiences for the SDGs using upbeat, inspiring and clear language (Clara Henry, 2016).