How to ... make development communications more effective

By Martin Kirk for The Guardian Professional

Martin Kirk is global campaigns director for The Rules, a new social movement addressing the root causes of global poverty

Date November 28, 2012

Is it time to change the message? Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Is it time to change the message? Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Here are four recommendations for areas in which I think we're falling out of touch. They apply to all development communicators – campaigners, fundraisers, media officers and shop managers – who should see themselves as part of the same team, having one united voice, telling one story.

Drop the passive voice

Poverty isn't natural, nor is it part of some universal moral order. Such thinking is profoundly untrue and disastrously misleading. Every facet of the economic and political system is the creation of people, including poverty. We're very reticent on this point.

A major NGO's website states: "Millions of people die from completely preventable diseases. Parents are forced to choose which child eats today".

The only active agents here are the diseases. Everything else just is. And that's a pretty standard NGO description of the world. We do it because it allows us to say to the potential supporter, "you can be the active force, the saviour". But we know that parents are being forced to choose, not because Mrs X hasn't given £3 a month, but by real people in power, making decisions. We've forced this logic of passivity deep into our basic story, such that we're now the biggest proponents of the belief that mass poverty is natural, and inevitable. As long as this message is not fixed, simply claiming "we can overcome poverty" on a homepage will come across as naïve and probably cynical. We need to put the people and decisions that create poverty at the heart of our narratives.

Get over the addiction to traditional charity

It's an albatross around our necks and it abuses our values. I mean the use of degrading 'flies in their eyes' pictures but it's more than that. Charity and development have long been conflated – it's time to disentangle them. Development is primarily about power, its distribution and effects. Charity is only about the power of one person – the person doing the 'saving'. It actively distracts from larger questions; it insults and denies the agency of 'beneficiaries' (perhaps the worst bit of jargon we have); and it squeezes the many radical things needed to fight poverty into a tepid '£3-a-month' size mental box. Let's set development free.

In practice, this means never promoting the idea that charity can overcome poverty; treating fundraising imperatives as reasons to lift our creativity higher, not stay chained to 'tried and tested' in spite of the weight of evidence of the damage being done, and rejecting the idea that the two can comfortably exist side-by-side.

Become data geeks

Barack Obama won because he had more and better data geeks than Mitt Romney. OK, that's probably ignoring a couple of salient facts but there is an important truth here (Obama had a superior data analysis operations). Our ability to understand, in real time, why one piece of communication is working and another failing has been improving radically. Invest in analytics tools. Employ people trained to understand big data and put them in every department. Plenty of organisations have data people but they are either not the right kind or are treated as junior staff in relation to other communicators. And that needs to change.

Expand the definition of expertise

We're a little too uniform in our knowledge. We tend to know a particular type of communication, usually marketing or media derived, which teach us to think about things like immediate cut through and salience. That's great but we also need people trained to bring about profound shifts in social norms and attitudes. Hire social psychologists, systems theorists and linguists alongside the traditional campaigners and brand managers.

The mood is already rising that agencies in the global north are lumbering beasts who wouldn't know good organising if it ran them over, and, more than anything, need to cleanse themselves of the 'saviour' mindset that runs deep through their history and their business models. Now more than ever we need to update our practices and identity, and address the challenges we face. Ignoring them would put the very credibility and relevance of development communications at stake.


Reprinted with Permission


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