5 September 2014

Africa: Why the UN Needs to Be More Strategic About Promoting the Post-2015 Development Agenda


United Nations Member States will soon negotiate the world's next development agenda, to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) after the 2015 deadline for their achievement. The success of this agenda will, of course, depend upon whether it garners global support.

Poverty cannot and will not be eradicated in the halls of the U.N. If our world's next development agenda is to be achieved, it will happen in the national and local halls of power where governance decisions are made - and in cities, towns, and villages around the world where people rally to hold their leaders accountable and to take action themselves.

To build the global support required to achieve this agenda, the U.N. must therefore craft and present this new plan with unprecedented levels of strategy, innovation, and persuasiveness.

Yet discussions within the U.N. are now almost entirely focused on the content of the agenda. Unfortunately, even if the perfect plan is crafted on paper, it will make little difference if people around the globe do not unite to implement it. That's why much greater focus is needed now on positioning the agenda to garner maximum global support.

Here are six things the U.N. can do to make this happen:

Harness the Best Expertise to Advance the Agenda

The U.N. should work with a world-class global communications firm in order to develop and test a compelling name and narrative for the post-2015 agenda. These elements should not be an afterthought.

The global community's discussions now center around the concept of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A more inspirational name is needed. Many believe that discussions of SDGs have progressed so far that it is futile, at this point, to attempt to change it. Furthermore, like all other elements of the agenda, names and titles will ultimately be subject to political negotiation and compromise. Still, it is troubling that, in the year 2014, it is considered idealistic to advance the idea that the U.N. should communicate in terms that ordinary people will understand. It is particularly strange that the U.N. prides itself on harnessing the very best science available on how we can eradicate disease or combat climate change, but then ignores the wide body of evidence available to us on how we might communicate the agenda in ways that would build the requisite support to achieve it.

Advertisers convince people around the globe every day that having the right labels on the backsides of their pants will change their lives. With the post-2015 development agenda, no such alchemy will be required. The U.N. will be asking for people's support for an agenda that will actually, materially improve their lives. Given what modern communicators are capable of, this is not such a formidable task.

Do Not Obscure the Language of the Agenda

Arriving at consensus on this agenda will be so difficult, contentious, and painful, that it will be tempting for Member States to obscure the language of the agenda in places where agreement is not reached. They must avoid this. If Member States cannot agree upon the agenda among themselves, they cannot hope to convince the world's seven billion people to champion it. The language of the agenda must be written in lucid and powerful prose, and presented in no uncertain terms.

Communicate in Human Terms

Research shows that people are less likely to get involved when they feel that they cannot make an appreciable difference. This means that the U.N. must convince the world that our problems are not intractable, and that individual actions can have an impact. The language of the agenda will need to strike a careful balance, in order to convince citizens that our challenges are severe enough to require urgent action, but not so hopeless that we cannot solve them.

Additionally, human beings are drawn to and moved by stories of individual members of humanity - and inured against faceless statistics. This means that our next development agenda must be presented in human terms. Part of this will require telling the stories of real people around the world. The U.N. will also need to share statistics that dramatize the scale and scope of the challenges we face, while at the same time discussing them in language that makes clear that they are talking about individual human lives.

Be Globally Accessible and Relevant

When I worked for the U.N. Millennium Campaign, I particularly struggled to attract the interest of the United States press in covering the MDGs. One of the key challenges was that global poverty was not an issue that was largely perceived as impacting the daily lives of Americans - and so it was especially difficult to convey why the MDGs should matter to them. (Of course, America faces serious poverty problems of its own, but they are of a different order that the poverty in developing nations.

The MDGs target individuals living on less than $1.25 per day). To be sure, Americans stood to be very much impacted by the MDGs - from the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability, to the goal of eradicating diseases which know no national boundaries. However, all of this was not obvious at first blush.

Presenting the post-2015 agenda as one of not just eradicating poverty but also achieving sustainable development should help all people better recognize its relevance to their own communities - a crucial first step in helping to win their support and participation.

Promote Shared Ownership

One of the rules of the Millennium Campaign is to never refer to the MDGs as the "U.N. Millennium Development Goals." The Campaign's thinking is that the MDGs belong not to the organization, but to the people, in whose names world leaders have promised to eradicate global poverty. The U.N. should similarly take itself out of the title of the new agenda.

Instead, it should promote ownership of the post-2015 agenda among citizens and civil society organizations around the globe. The agenda should be represented as a dual responsibility and entitlement of people across the planet.

Additionally, many people around the world have been eager to get involved to support the achievement of the MDGs, but have felt overwhelmed and unsure about how they could take action. The post-2015 agenda should be as specific as possible about what individuals can do to make a difference.

Be Transparent About the State of Negotiations

With so much hope pinned on the outcome document, people and groups around the world will be clamoring for word of how the agenda is taking shape and for copies of early drafts, long before Member States have begun to agree among themselves on its most basic parameters. Early drafts will inevitably leak. Further negotiations will make these leaked documents obsolete long before they have provoked harshly-worded rebukes. The U.N.'s best strategy will be to try to get out ahead of this process by selectively releasing information about how negotiations are progressing. Of course, it is painstakingly difficult to write and achieve consensus on even such broad and seemingly innocuous statements.

But if Member States do not come together to try to control the emerging narrative and project a sense of unity and progress, they will cede control of the message to others.

The lessons of the MDGs make clear that the U.N. needs to step up its communications efforts in order to mobilize global support for the post-2015 agenda. Consider this: The Coca-Cola Company sells 1.9 billion servings of its products daily, in 200 countries. This means that the company reaches, on average, one in every 3.7 people on earth, every single day. Coke's stated reach of 200 countries exceeds the membership of the U.N. itself. (And, yes, Coke is physically addictive, but the world's next development agenda will focus on issues such as hunger and health which I would argue are just as viscerally compelling).

Meanwhile, a survey of people in Australia, Germany, India, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, conducted by Sponsorship Research International, found that more people could identify the golden arches of McDonald's than the Christian cross. And the Walt Disney Company has made a rodent reviled by human beings for millennia one of the most adored characters on the planet.

How have they done it? Through powerful global public relations. Let us now get the experts to use that same power of storytelling to build support for what matters most for people and our planet.

Kara Alaimo is Assistant Professor of Public Relations in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. She previously served as Head of Communications for the Secretariat of the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda and as Global Media Coordinator for the U.N. Millennium Campaign. Read her full issue brief, How the United Nations Should Promote the Post-2015 Development Agenda.


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