This is a Love Story: thinking globally during COVID-19

by | Mar 30, 2020


This is a love story. Forget what you’ve heard. It isn’t a war, it isn’t a fight. It isn’t a race, it isn’t a competition. This is a love story. 

Over the last few years, bringing international NGOs together to make the case for aid and development, we’ve been digging deeply into how people think (or, more accurately, how they hardly ever think) about the life-saving work their taxes pay for. We’ve captured that below, as dos and don’ts designed to help spokespeople from international organisations frame interviews, opinion pieces and social media posts in a way that will resonate at a time when families are worried about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on their own finances.

When testing the response to Facebook videos or observing body language when discussing foreign aid on street stalls in small towns across the country, we’ve heard the same dominant theme again and again: ‘charity begins at home’ is a frame we need to go through, not around. Through a combination of our hyper-localised testing and nationally representative insight work (you can read more on the latter here), we have built up a clear understanding of how to get a different end to that sentence: yes, charity begins at home, but it doesn’t have to end there. Many of the twelve lessons below draw from three years of experiments and from the long-standing research funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and translated for practitioners by the team at the DevCommsLab, using data from the Aid Attitude Tracker, and now the Development Engagement Lab.

The 2019 General Election had already created a new campaigning context for us (more on that here). International charities now worry that, with unprecedented risk facing our loved ones, we are even more likely to concentrate our concern on our nearest and dearest. With media stories about the potential for the NHS to be overwhelmed coming on top of several years of ‘winter crisis’ stories, the national mood is one of gratitude to health workers but (legitimate) questions about whether the system itself is properly funded. 

Meanwhile, optimists point to the spike in volunteering in mutual aid groups and generosity to Sport Relief as reasons to hope that COVID19 may create a new era of solidarity and care for strangers.

Our own view is that what happens will be down to the effectiveness of the storytelling of leaders (of all sorts) in the weeks to come. As Alice Sachrajda lays out here, this is a story that’s still being written. If we, as internationalists, can follow some of the twelve rules below we can contribute to a story that is positive for global development, but won’t necessarily be about global development. We know from successful strategic communication efforts on other issues (you can read about one here) that one of the key things that campaigners get wrong is thinking that the objective and the message have to be the same. 

Our intended outcome is a Britain where people continue to give their consent to aid spending, but the most effective storytelling won’t be about aid. It has long been time to kill off the literalism (you can read more about that here) but this crisis gives an added urgency to our drive to do emotionally resonant communications.

Thankfully that should be straightforward, because the underlying dynamic of the COVID19 crisis and of Britain’s international development spending is the same: this is a love story. At their most basic, both depend on the choices we make to behave in a loving way to people we haven’t met. When we have introduced our joint work to new partners, the one slide that they always remember is the one with this pie chart.

What it shows is how few people in Britain have been to the developing world. From the get-go, only 76% of British people have passports. When they use them, they are almost entirely visiting ’advanced economies’ – as defined by the IMF, or the poorer countries in the rest of Europe.  

For most of the British public, the ‘aid’ conversation is one about people they’ll never meet in places they’ll never go to. As argued here, people who are trying to get their heads around the reality of poverty should be encouraged to expand what they do know, not sneered at for what they don’t. For people who spend a lot of time railing against inequality, development campaigners can be pretty slow to realise that, to our audiences, we are the ones who look rich and remote. You can read more about that here.

While all the rules are based on the best current evidence, some of them will be overtaken by events. We are watching closely what friends in allied movements are doing and staying across the best guides coming out of the US but we will be missing things so please do let us know which of the 12 rules work for you and which don’t.

Rule 1: Appeal to the Larger Us

Please do: Talk about our shared challenges, encouraging our best instincts to ‘tend and befriend’ as laid out by The Collective Psychology project here or the Frameworks Institute here. That would mean saying something like ‘people here in the UK are worried about their access to healthcare and how they will have enough food and of course there’s a lot of worry about work and paying the bills. Family life is being turned upside down around the world and we are determined to help wherever the need is greatest. It’s hard to imagine living in a refugee camp all packed in and without proper access to water to wash your hands, but we won’t leave anybody behind’.

Please don’t: Imply the challenges in other countries are so different that it is a different kind of problem for a different kind of person – a story of ‘us and them’ of the sort we are already primed to believe. Instead, point out the bald facts, as Kevin Watkins does here, without creating a hierarchy of suffering. This beautiful Comic Relief film says it best: we all need each other.

Rule 2: Talk about our interdependence, not our interests

Please do: Talk about our interdependence, saying things like ‘in order to fight this virus everywhere we need to stop it anywhere. Everybody – wherever they are from, whatever they look like – is vulnerable to infection, so we need to work together with other countries if we’re to save lives and stay safe here in the UK. All of us are only as safe as any of us, so we need to make sure nobody is left out of the world’s response’. The Bill Gates talk here is a good example. 

Please don’t: Talk explicitly about our national or self-interest. This is a much-loved framing by politicians and DFID continue to use it but repeated testing shows that people respond best to moral arguments about relieving human suffering. Using a nationally representative sample of over 8,000 people from YouGov, the Aid Attitude Tracker found national or self-interest arguments to be the least effective (compared to both the moral case and mutual interest arguments). And even polling (by Brunswick) of Conservative voters showed that messaging on aid on the basis of national security or economic benefit to the UK didn’t play well. As well as not working to persuade the public, national interest arguments open the door to further consideration of a merger of DFID with the Foreign Office. This thread consolidates the arguments against that in one place.

Rule 3: Amplify the hope

Please do: Link the kindness of local volunteers to the values local NGO staff and local humanitarian responders show every day, saying things like, ‘all across the country and all across the world communities are coming together to look after each other. It’s so moving to see retired doctors and nurses coming back to the NHS and around the world refugee medics are signing up to serve. That spirit of kindness is the same one we see after natural disasters and in poor communities everywhere we work’. The backlash against last year’s attacks on the RNLI shows people do fundamentally believe in our common humanity. As we say at Save the Children, never bet against the British public. Time and again they dig deep for the Disasters Emergency Committee, just as they did for refugees as laid out so movingly by Jonathan Freedland here.

Please don’t: Catastrophise about dystopian outcomes or share stories about stockpiling, attacks on human rights, anti-aid sentiments or anti-migrant sentiments in a way that makes them seem more common than they actually are (more on the dangers of that in the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s #DontFeedTheTrolls report here). 

Rule 4: Show health workers as heroes

Please do: Talk about the inspiration provided by health workers everywhere, saying things like ‘On my own street I’ve got amazing NHS workers working on the frontline for all of us and it’s such a powerful reminder that we all get sick and we all need help when we’re unwell. I’m so proud my colleagues are providing care overseas just like my neighbour is providing care here in the UK’.

Please don’t: Depersonalise health. The NHS is one of the biggest employers in the world – pretty much everybody knows somebody working in it. Reminding people of their own experiences of care will resonate much more than abstract jargon about ‘global health’ or ‘public health’.  

Rule 5: Remind people there’s a plan #ForPeopleForPlanet

Please do: Talk about what has changed. ‘Clearly there has been an extraordinary outpouring of compassion and all of us understand that we’re all in this together. The government has moved fast to announce new measures and that shows what can be done. We are all frightened but all pulling together and that’s the spirit that will get us through this. Once we’ve beaten this disease hopefully that same love for each other will help us deal with other issues too but that is for the months to come. Right now, the priority is saving lives and making sure everybody can get fair access to the healthcare and help they need’.

Please don’t: Imply that nothing will ever be the same and it’s time to ‘rip up the rules’. We know from British Future’s work on immigration that the sense things are out of control and nobody has a plan triggers more inward-looking responses. Instead we should remind people there is already a plan – the Sustainable Development Goals – agreed by world leaders to redesign policy and systems to work #ForPeopleForPlanet. We definitely need institutional innovation, as laid out by Alex Evans and David Steven here, but there is a risk of further fuelling public cynicism about the effectiveness of democratic institutions (see seven trends analysis here). Leaders must be held to account for their choices (Professor Devi Sridhar provides a good model of how to do that here) without undermining faith in collective action through government. The Frameworks Institute has some guidance on that here.

Rule 6: Make it manageable

Please do: Talk about the unprecedented level – but not nature – of the threat, saying things like ‘a pandemic of this size and speed is not something we have seen before, but the world has plenty of experience fighting disease. Whether it is eradicating smallpox, nearly wiping out polio, turning the tide against malaria or fighting back against Ebola, we know what can be done if people work together’.

Please don’t: Imply it is inevitable that this crisis will overwhelm the multilateral system or the capacity of communities to cope. If it’s right that the emotional pre-conditions for change are a sense of hope and of agency (as argued in this podcast here) then we need to be wary of any messages that make people feel like catastrophe is inevitable and there is no point in acting. Alex Evans draws out some lessons about the collective psychology of coronavirus here, based on years of research in climate storytelling about how doom-mongering drives a sense of powerlessness rather than engagement.

Rule 7: Put communities, not organisations, centre stage

Please do: Talk about what is being done by our frontline colleagues in communities, with messages like ‘right now our community health workers are helping the people worst hit by this crisis. Today like every day they are in some of the toughest places in the world helping to save and change lives and they desperately need your help’. We know frontline workers with relatable job titles (like teacher, nurse and doctor) are the most trusted to talk about development work (see more here).

Please don’t: Talk about the challenges facing your organisation as a corporate entity. NGO umbrella body BOND is already working with government, as are our other sector bodies like NCVO and ACEVO, to get support to charities to get us through the crisis. They are doing a fantastic job so spokespeople addressing public audiences should let them get on with it and focus instead on what our organisations achieve rather than how they work.

Rule 8: Talk about Britain’s contribution to the collective efforts

Please do: Talk about Britain’s contribution. As Heather Hamilton lays out here, appeals to national or regional values can be effective, but need plausible proof points rather than hyperbolic appeals to exceptionalism, so focus on saying things like ‘Britain has a tradition of playing our part in the world when times are tough. It’s fantastic to see that the Department for International Development is at the forefront of the global work to find a coronavirus vaccine. As we saw with Ebola, DFID is very expert at dealing with international health challenges and I’m pleased we have somebody in the cabinet charged with thinking about saving lives and fighting disease as their number one priority’. 

Please don’t: Talk about Britain as a ‘world leader’. One way to cause a backlash is to suggest that Britain is contributing more than its fair share. Qualitative research by Britain Thinks shows that the ‘charity begins at home’ frame is easily triggered by suggestions that Britain did more than others to help overseas while cutting services at home. Focus not on quantity but quality, not on cash but on expertise.   

Rule 9: Be patient about our other issues

Please do: Talk about the linkages between this issue and others we work on, saying things like ‘our work with refugees / disabled people / people affected by climate change / people affected by conflict already showed how fragile life can be. This is another challenge facing the world’s poorest people and one we have to pull together to meet if we’re to end poverty for good’.

Please don’t: Imply this is a distraction from or less important than our other work. The letter calling for emergency action for people and the planet that many of us signed at New Year still holds, but we have to wait for coordinated action on one of the biggest humanitarian and economic events in the history of the world to be agreed first. 

Rule 10: Allow for anxieties

Please do: Talk about how we are all connected and will all do better if we cooperate, saying things like ‘all of humanity is facing a huge challenge now, but we can get through it together. We need the genius of the world’s best scientists, the support of the world’s biggest companies, the commitment to work together from the world’s political leaders and for all of us individually to do our bit to stop the spread and look after others’.

Please don’t: Imply any previous scepticism about aid or development has been shown to be illegitimate. Ali Goldsworhty of the Depolarisation Project lays out in the Times (£) there is a real risk of further polarisation if people are triumphalist about their views being vindicated by the crisis. Instead we should answer people’s ongoing questions about aid (as Beth Howgate does here) and refrain from any temptation to defend the indefensible

This rule is particularly important because of the risk of campaigners falling prey to the ‘empathy delusion’. You can read Andrew Tenzer’s brilliant report here but essentially his argument is that people who spend a lot of time looking at insight work (like us!) can actually end up less good at listening, because we think we’ve already done enough to get on the wavelength of the people we’re talking with. 

Likewise, as campaigners become ever more sophisticated commissioners and readers of insight work there is a danger we will start to think more about the ‘personas’ research companies serve us up than we do about the real people who are trying to have a conversation with us. Time and again we’ve seen advocates thinking they need to appeal to a separate category of people, not realising that the fight between different narratives and ways of seeing the world is taking place inside all of us, not between all of us. Our job in making the case for aid and development is to prompt a moment of reconsideration for people who are already conflicted on this issue. In thinking through our strategy we have been hugely influenced by the Heartwired approach and, in particular, how advocates for LGBTQI+ liberation worked inside the conflicts and made it easy for people to process their anxieties and change their minds. 

Rule 11: Make inequality tangible

Please do: Talk about how inequality means this hits people differently, saying things like ‘families who already had the least will be hit the hardest. If you can’t pay a fee at the hospital, are already living in a crowded refugee camp or don’t have access to clean water you can imagine how much harder it is to keep your family safe right now’.

Please don’t: Talk about inequality in the abstract. We know from colleagues in the domestic poverty sector that inequality just doesn’t move public audiences the way it motivates campaigners, so it’s far better to talk about unjust outcomes than philosophical concepts. There is a consolidation of some of the evidence on this point here.

Rule 12: Practice the cooperation we preach

Please do: Celebrate the good works of other INGOs responding, saying things like ‘governments need to work together on this but so do charities and we are teaming up with partners in every country where we work. Our NHS workers are our national heroes and frontline aid workers are our global heroes. We are all in this together and every charity worker is doing their bit’.

Please don’t: Compete. Almost nothing riles the public more at the best of times, there will be no forgiveness for it here in the worst. Mike Adamson of the Red Cross has some great advice on strategic collaboration here.

And finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself in this strange and stressful time. We’ve long believed there’s a role for popular culture to help us all make sense of big topics but as far as we can see nobody is curating the art that would help us all envision a future world where refugees are safe, nature protected or gender equality achieved. Campaigners need to get much better at collecting the poetry to read, films to watch and sci-fi to engage with, if we’re to open up the collective imagination. In that spirit we will leave you with some anthems of interdependence. Let’s take a pause listen to our love songs before we tell our love stories, then let’s beat this thing back with the same fierce love for humanity that brought us to this work in the first place. 

Kirsty McNeill is Chair of the Campaign to Defend Aid and Development and Richard Darlington is Campaign Director. 

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    Kirsty McNeill is Save the Children’s Executive Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns. She leads teams to galvanise the public and influence policymakers on humanitarian action, global development, and help for children here in the UK. Previously, she founded a consultancy advising some of the world’s leading charities and spent three years as a Special Adviser in Number 10. She came to Downing Street having led the policy and influencing work of DATA, Bono and Bob Geldof’s advocacy organisation, in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the EU institutions. Before joining DATA she was on the board of Make Poverty History and managed the Stop AIDS Campaign, successfully negotiating a commitment to universal access to AIDS treatment from the 2005 G8. Today she is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Center for Countering Digital Hate and the Coalition for Global Prosperity and is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.


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