Johanna Blakley: Overcoming “Development Fatigue”

How can we translate awareness into action?

If you’re a regular news consumer in the United States you might get the impression that world is going to hell. Especially when it comes to international news, you’ve probably recoiled from the grizzly headlines and wondered how on earth, in the 21st century, we find ourselves surrounded by such barbarism, poverty, and countless other intractable global ills.

Unless you’re a global development professional, or someone who’s watched one of Hans Roslings’ acerbic TED videos, you probably wouldn’t know about all of the absolutely mind-boggling improvements that have been made to the quality of life for billions of people around the globe.

Unfortunately, the great successes of the Millennium Development Goals, didn’t exactly make front page news. In the financially failing news industry, the international beat is the most expensive to cover, and with the public dead-set against increasing foreign aid and selfishly focused on its own backyard, news outlets don’t have the best incentives to report on boring things like the MDG targets that were met. Little old things like . . .

  • Goal 1: Extreme poverty was reduced from 47% to 14% in developing nations.
  • Goal 2: 91% of kids in the developing world are receiving primary education.
  • Goal 3: The developing regions as a whole achieved the target for gender equality in primary, secondary and tertiary education.
  • Goal 4: The mortality rate for children under five has declined by more than half.
  • Goal 5: There was a 45% decline in maternal mortality.
  • Goal 6: There was a 45% decrease in HIV infections, a 58% drop in the malaria mortality rate, and a 45% drop in the TB mortality rate.
  • Goal 7: 2.6 billion people now have access to better water – this target was achieved five years ahead of schedule.
  • Goal 8: Despite public opinion, we’ve seen a 66% increase in development assistance.

Pleasantly surprised? Perhaps a little more inclined to follow the progress of the Sustainable Development Goals, which just launched in January?

Well, the UN hopes you will be. But, beyond injecting capital into the news industry, how do NGOs, governments and global development activists figure out a way to reach and engage the public?

This was the topic of a Center for Public Diplomacy Forum that I joined at the UN Foundation last month. Several of the people who worked on developing the SDGs talked about their hopes for the upcoming 15-year campaign, and worried, as well, about the difficulty of effectively communicating 17 goals and 169 targets.

I was thrilled that I could bring to the discussion some media impact research that we had conducted at the Lear Center on the effectiveness of The Guardian’s global development reporting. A full length report is in process (you can watch this short video summarizing key findings), but one fascinating finding was that the best predictor that someone would take serious action based on Guardian reporting was that they had a high sense of self-efficacy. People who believed that individuals could make a difference – even with tough global problems – were more likely to feel empowered to do something.

So the burning question in my mind was, what can journalists, storytellers, and any professional or amateur communicators do to optimize the possibility that their readers, listeners, and viewers would get off their duffs and get involved?

I believe the answer can be found in three recent studies (first and second and third) conducted by the Engaging News Project at UT Austin. They worked with the Solutions Journalism Network to figure out whether news stories that include solutions in them – rather than just focusing on the problems – affect readers in some way.

In the first study, researchers presented US adults with news articles that were identical in every way, except half of them added reporting on potential responses to mitigate the problem. It turned out that readers of the “solutions journalism” were significantly more likely to say they had increased interest, they felt inspired, and they believed they could contribute to a solution to the issue.

People who read the articles that included solutions reporting also were significantly more likely to say that they would like to get involved in the issue and donate money.

Fortunately, these lessons apply to all types of communication and media, not just journalism. Whether you’re crafting a tweet, a blog post, a press release, a fundraising letter, or a feature film, you may increase the odds that people will feel empowered to do something with the information you share by applying the Solutions Journalism framework. Consider, for instance, explaining the causes of the problem, and not just the problem itself. Describe responses that people have devised, and provide how-to details (nicknamed #howdunnit) on the responses that worked. And don’t forget to include evidence of results so that people are empowered to evaluate for themselves the scope of the solution. This kind of information makes it easier for people to think constructively about grave social problems rather than turning a deaf ear and feeling dis-empowered.

This is hopeful news for all of us involved in efforts to improve global health. Savvy communicators can use these guidelines to overcome problems like “development fatigue” and finally build the global momentum necessary to address once and for all the utterly soluble health problems that continue to plague us.

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