The United Nations often reminds us that the Millennium Development Goals, which leaders committed to at the UN Millennium Summit in New York in 2000, are lime-bound and measurable goals for socio-economic advancement”. The eight MDGs come with a set of 18 specific targets and 48 indicators. They cover a broad spectrum, from halving absolute poverty and combating HIV, to getting all children to attend primary school, and saving mothers from and childbirth-related deaths.
But these all-important targets have failed to capture the popular imagination. Even among government officials, levels of awareness and enthusiasm vary considerably. The reason the MDGs are not catching on is clear: nobody is discussing them in simple terms.
Having worked with techno-geeks and development workers for years, this writer recognises that they have at least one thing in common: they speak a language that doesn’t make sense to the rest of us. They bandy acronyms with incredibly ease – LDC, LLDC, SIDS, NSDS, PRSP, DOTS and TRIPS. And now MDG.
In mid-September, world leaders gathered at the UN in New York to review progress on the MDG programme and to renew their own commitments. But did the prime ministers and presidents even know what they were signing up for? The UN needs to demystify the MDGs so that the media and public can understand them. Here are some suggestions:
- Go beyond the ‘broadsheet’ mentality. Broadsheet newspapers are influential with policy-makers and business leaders, but the mass outreach is with the tabloids and their broadcast equivalents. In countries with vibrant vernacular media, stick to them rather than to the English press.
- The NIT test. Before reaching out to the media with a story or op-ed piece, it always helps to ask three basic questions: Is it new? Is it interesting? And is it true? Don’t hesitate to use terms, metaphors and analogies from popular culture.
- Rise above mere publicity. The trouble with many UN agencies is that they cannot discern between institutional publicity and issue-based awareness-raising. Often, all the country offices care for is press clippings (from the English press) to send back to headquarters.
Today’s MDG promoters all over Southasia need to revisit some of the more successful development efforts of the past few decades and study the role that good communications have played in each. From promoting universal human rights to eradicating smallpox; from popularising oral rehydration salts to forgiving Southern debt, there have been some remarkable campaigns. Effective public communication was a key element of success in all.
When all is said and done, please remember that MDG branding does not matter – it is the core set of issues that the MDGs embody that need mass attention and aggressive promotion. 2015 will be here sooner than we expect. We do not want to find that we’ve missed the chance of a millennium to do a few things right in development, just because we’ve been too busy speaking to each other, instead of to the public out there.