Changing the Public Conversation on Development

Recent public opinion research confirms that while the public broadly believes that addressing the needs of the world’s poorest people is the right thing to do, there is a perception in our country and in key European nations that “aid is wasted” and that progress is difficult, if not impossible.

Over the past few months, on behalf of the NGO-coalition InterAction, I worked with a small group* of organizations that came together to determine if and how we can change public attitudes about development through more effective and unified communications.  We were motivated by a series of tracking polls that shows anemic public support for global development.

This group conducted an intensive audit of the current communications frames used to talk about global development, and performed an in-depth, four country (US, UK, France and Germany) research project to understand better how to communicate with audiences in these geographies. Tom Scott, director of Global Brand and Innovation at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been facilitating this effort.  “The results – a comprehensive look at public opinion post-recession — are sobering but also present clear opportunities for our sector,” he said in a recent blog post on InterAction’s website.**

Scott adds that the research confirmed some things we all already know. Huge skepticism exists around the effectiveness of development work. There is a sense that “nothing has changed” in 30 years. And public knowledge and understanding of our issues is poor.

The research also showed us that there is increasing urgency to reframe the way we are communicating about our work. The diagnosis is clear: we’re not doing enough to improve public perception of development.

The group shared the key research findings at InterAction’s Forum in Washington, DC at a well-attended workshop that I moderated along with representatives from the Gates Foundation and Save the Children.

It won’t be easy to shift the narrative.  The work we do is complex and “foreign” to most people. Action on key global issues from climate change to women’s reproductive health is being held hostage by political game-playing.  And these tough economic times are fueling cries of “charity should begin – and stay – at home.”

Says Scott: “It will take time.  It will take coordination.  And it will take consistency.  But most important, it will take the willingness of a sector to come together and unite.”

*Organizations involved in The Narrative Project include: Bond, Care, Comic Relief, DSW, The Global Poverty Project, InterAction, ONE, Oxfam, Path, Results, Save the Children, US Global Leadership Coalition, United Nations Foundation, Welt Hunger Hilfe and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

**For more highlights, please visit Tom Scott’s June 11 blog post at