Foreign aid has always been a contentious issue – especially when donor countries are in recession or trying to struggle out of one, while (some) formerly developing countries emerge with a stable and growing economy. From the viewpoint of policy makers in donor countries, the issue certainly has two sides: allocating support to the poorest countries in the world or those plagued by hunger and conflict, or stocking up much needed domestic programs for the poor and disadvantaged at home. Pressure from national interest groups is likely to push policy-makers toward domestic programs.
InterMedia has published a report on Building Support for International Development that looks at key constituents of foreign aid – citizens, influentials, and decision-makers – analyzing their positions toward development and scrutinizing the best avenues to communicate with them. The report covers the four largest bilateral donors – France, Germany, UK, and USA – as well as China, which is becoming a major aid player. Results from the report are encouraging: Citizens interested in international development and predisposed toward foreign aid make up a significant part of the electorate in the five countries that were analyzed. The share of interested citizens in the urban population reaches from 31 % in the United States to 50% in the UK – note that with 46%, China has the second-largest proportion here.
Poverty, health issues, and lack of access to health and education services were among the development priorities of interested citizens. HIV/AIDS was considered to be the most urgent health issue that international development needs to deal with. Influentials tend to not prioritize one development issue over others, but insist that they are all interdependent. Nevertheless, the InterMedia report identified a few issues that stood out: health, poverty, climate change, education, and governance. Government decision-makers did not identify one development priority over others, but did express strong concern about governance issues.
The report identifies a major problem for building support for development: information. Interested citizens get very little, while influentials and decision-makers in government get very little systematic and specific information. Short-term information campaigns are, however, only on part of the solution. The report shows that people’s attitudes about development are formed by their upbringing, personal beliefs, and life experiences. That means that communication campaigns about development issues need to reach citizens at every stage of their lives, and throughout their lives. Social media is suggested as one channel to help with this outreach, but the report also notes that social media are not considered to be the most trustworthy or authoritative for development information by any of the groups analyzed.
From a public communication perspective, I find the large proportions of interested citizens among the most important results of this report. In an earlier post I talked about the role of a mobilized public for policy change. In general, communication campaigns need to move the passive public to be an interested and then an active public. But in this report it seems that development aid already has an interested audience of between a third and half the electorate – that’s larger than audiences for many other social issues. Add to that the influentials the report surveyed (journalists and media practitioners, academics, think tanks, NGOs, faith-based organizations, and bloggers), and you have a rather solid base to work with. However, another problem is revealed in the report: most of those citizens, except those in France, think that addressing development issues is the job of the governments in developing countries, and not of their own countries. Most citizens also believe that their own government’s efforts have made little or no difference.
That’s where communication campaigns have their work cut out, according to my reading of the report. Communication should target beliefs, attitudes, and opinions not so much about whether development is important, but who is responsible for it and which support structure should administer and deliver aid.