14 February 2013

Africa: Development - What's the Story and Should We Tell It?

Blog

I was at a roundtable co-hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Debt, Aid and Trade, the International Broadcasting Trust and IDS.

The question we posed the assembled MPs, media experts and development folks was: How to we reengage the UK public on international development?

Peter Kellner's "its a policy knockout" in Prospect magazine at the end of 2012 found that the UK public places cutting aid high on the list of things it wants the government to do.

Given the headlines today "UK set for low GDP growth for at least two years, Bank of England warns", it will be difficult to change this dynamic, although the Enough Food IF ... campaign should help counter it, at least temporarily.

The prevailing media narratives centre on a number of things:

- we spend too much on aid. There is an excellent video from ONE which does a good job of highlighting the disconnects between what the UK public think we spend on aid (20 percent of national income) and how much we actually do (0.54 percent)

- aid has no effect on people over there. Aid is either diverted, used incompetently or used on things that are just band-aids. Save the Children and others do a very good job of showing how aid makes a positive lifelong change to people's lives.

- aid does nothing for the UK. Much of Secretary of State Justine Greening's speech last week was centred on countering this theme. Her speech focused on the security and growth benefits for the UK of development aid.

So all of these narratives can be countered, but what about a more "front foot" stance?

What is the story of development? It is a story of:

- shared agendas -climate, the right types of growth and sustainable resource use

- one world, not three - increasingly common problems faced by all countries, with solutions coming from all corners of the world

- tax and policies overtaking aid and projects

We saw some of these elements in a recent speech from Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Secretary of State, although, for me, the elements don't yet come together sufficiently to tell a compelling story.

But above all it is a story of interconnectedness: forget 6 degrees of separation, it is down to one or two in global development terms. The choices of a UK procurement officials in Tesco's have a huge amount of influence on agricultural opportunities in Africa.

A Chinese government official's decision to open up a coal fired plant in a remote Province contributes to the pattern and intensity of droughts and floods in South Asia. A participatory budget in Brighton (courtesy of Bill Randall the Mayor of Brighton) that is inspired by Porto Alegre's council in Brazil.

The story the media frequently tells - aided and abetted by the development industry which needs to raise funds - is centred on disaster, deprivation and disease. This sells newspapers and helps charitable giving. So why try to change it? Because it doesn't reflect the reality. Fatigue and cynicism will set in. Trust will be broken. And most importantly, it is a misrepresentation.

So how to make development interesting to viewers in the 6-7pm television news slot, preferably the local news slots which have even higher ratings than the national news ones? Not easy.

First, think like a regular viewer. Why should they be interested? Find some stories that penetrate the lives of busy people who have no professional interest in development. Second, write like a regular person. Don't use jargon. Third, develop a relationship with media professionals (not only those converted about development) - get to know how they think and what they need. Finally, tell the real story - authenticity will win out.

Localising global stories is not easy, but it surely can be done. We have to change the conversation on development before it is too late.

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