Is your aid program ‘protected’ in the Trump era?

Last month the 2017 Australasian Aid Conference was once again held in Canberra. As Australia is the largest aid and development donor in the Pacific it was a little disheartening to realize that not one session at the conference was focused on communications – ‘for’ or ‘about’ – development. So, it was with great pleasure, to see that the winner of the ‘3-minute aid idea pitch’ was Ashlee Betteridge and her presentation on Communications for Protection.

Credit: Ashlee Betteridge

Fun, witty, and incredibly relevant, Ashlee’s presentation makes the case that in the age of populism, declining aid budgets, Trump, and increasing humanitarian crises’, that “…communications is not just about engagement or accountability – it’s about protection.”

She convincingly makes the case (using the brilliant analogy of sexual protection) that governments, at home and abroad, need to communicate more regularly, and more effectively, about their aid and international development work now that we live in an age when the value of ‘helping others’ is so fundamentally under threat. As Ashlee noted at the beginning of her three minutes:

“…support for Australian aid has to come from home, and people need to know what it does if they are going to support it. Political leaders also need to be empowered to stay strong on aid in the face of kooky opponents.”

The call for greater awareness and visibility of international aid and development work has been made many times before, and in an age of new technologies, and social media specifically, you would think that it is easier than ever to communicate to the public about where ‘their’ aid money is going and the impact it is having on people’s lives.

But as Cristina Archetti reveals in her 2011 study The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, a range of factors impact on the ability of a government (Archetti focuses specifically on the diplomatic corps in London) to communicate to the public, and, for the most part, a lack of resources, capability, and capacity prohibits governments from making use of new technologies in any meaningful way. Officials are still primarily focused on engagement with mainstream media, and only those who don’t have strong connections with the media will seek out ‘alternative’ communications channels.

Archetti (2011) provides the example of two embassies that had Facebook pages set up by individuals – and in the case of the Danish embassy, by an intern specifically. Once the intern had left, the page ceased to be regularly active, and was assigned to someone’s portfolio that had little communications experience. Archetti points out that while:

“…both the Greek and Danish Facebook pages particularly demonstrate the entrepreneurship of the diplomats…the initiatives were developed as part of the vision of single individuals, without backing in terms of an explicit communication strategy from their home governments.”

While I do not advocate for a techno-deterministic approach (as discussed in my last post) to communications about development, there is clearly a large and widening gap between how governments choose (or don’t choose) to communicate about their aid work, and where their citizenry are likely to engage with such material. There is a lack of strategic coordination; professional support in the way of dedicated communications specialists; and an understanding of the shift in the media and communications landscape.

This is not a case of the condom breaking, but rather that the condom has yet to make it out of the bedside drawer. In today’s world, strategic communications should be front and centre of any government aid program or project, not the usual add-on ‘if we have extra money’ that it often turns out to be. It should be embedded in every project design (as should communications ‘for’ development) and it should have dedicated staffing and resources.

International aid and development work is fraught with questions around impact, agency, and meaningful participation and ownership. We should, and must, do better. But, we must give the public reasons to support aid work, and to demand that their governments support it, so we can have that chance.

What are your experiences with government efforts to communicate about development? Do you know of any good examples utilising new technologies? Do you believe there is a higher need now to communicate about aid impact given the global political climate, or do you think the need has always been there?