Getting the message across

CARL-GUSTAV LINDÉN / Jul 2013

An important part of ReCom–Research and Communication on Foreign Aid (2011-13) is to get ‘the message’ from the research programme across so that the evidence eventually will find its way into policy. This is the last year of ReCom and what we now have is a large fabric of knowledge about the impact of foreign aid that we want to share.

During 2012 and 2013 UNU-WIDER has built opportunities to engage with both policy makers and a wider audience, for instance in two ReCom results meetings in Stockholm this year. One focused on aid and social sectors (13 March), the other on aid and climate change (4 June). Two more will be arranged in Copenhagen this autumn, one on governance and fragility on 23 October, and one on gender equality at the beginning of December (watch our website for further details).

At the World Village Festival held in Helsinki at the end of May we had the opportunity to engage with people outside the field of development, who were nevertheless extremely interested in hearing more.

© UNU-WIDEROver the last weeks UNU-WIDER has also been promoting ReCom to journalists at two large events, the Global Media Forum 17-19 June 2013 in Bonn, Germany, with around 2,600 participants, and the World Conference of Science Journalists 24-28 June 2013 in Helsinki, Finland, with some 800+ participants. UNU and UNU-WIDER held sessions in both.

One thing that has struck me personally during these recent events is how well-informed Asian and African journalists are about development issues, and for a very good reason—they need to engage readers, listeners and viewers in complex and difficult issues that are part of their everyday life. One proof of this knowledge was our little test, a development quiz covering some core questions about development, poverty and inequality. Journalists from the South on average scored very well in the test. Of the three journalists among more than a hundred that got all five questions right, two were from Africa.

It has also been a very welcome reality check to engage in discussion with people from countries that are on the receiving end of development assistance. At the science journalists event we arranged a workshop ‘How to make news out of foreign aid?’, where UNU-WIDER director Finn Tarp presented facts about aid and economic development. Wycliffe Muga, weekend editor at the Star in Nairobi and a BBC commentator, as well as Mićo Tatalović from SciDev.net in London, were there to discuss the popular discourse of aid as presented in media.

At UNU-WIDER we believe that the mainly negative picture journalists reproduce about foreign aid needs to be balanced with some basic insights based on research findings, both regarding the real impact of aid as well as the changing landscape of aid and poverty. And there is no doubt that aid can be improved, which is a task that research also contributes towards.

Wycliffe said that people in Kenya are all for aid, but noted that donors have a hard time figuring out the cultural and social context of recipient countries. He told an entertaining story about a failed Nordic aid project—make fishermen out of pastoral communities—as an illustration. As Wycliffe pointed out, the way donors ‘construct’ a recipient country might bear little resemblance to prevailing realities—something also pointed out in a famous paper (and book) by James Ferguson.

This is a central issue in one of our recent ReCom papers, ‘Foreign aid for climate change related capacity building’, by Zexian Chen and Jingjing He. The authors note that capacity-building programmes have the best chance of succeeding when they are country-driven, include a wide range of national stakeholders, and involve a high degree of in-country ownership.

During the recent discussions with journalists from Africa this has also been a topic that crops up  over and over again: how does your research contribute to development in our countries? We mention capacity-building and policy impact, but it can sound abstract and for sure there is much work to do before the message gets across.

Carl-Gustav Lindén is Senior Communications Specialist, UNU-WIDER