MDG: A message from our spin doctors?

References to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are popping out of every UN document, speech and communication product these days. Each agency and official seem to be keen to outdo all others in living and swearing by this new ‘development mantra’ of our times.

MDGs are an international blueprint for human development, with eight major goals to be achieved by 2015. These goals are the means of implementing the Millennium Declaration — to which 189 governments committed at the UN Millennium Summit held in 2000.

But important as they are, the MDGs are only a means to an end, even if an extremely worthwhile one. If we lose sight of that, we risk allowing the MDG ‘dog’ to wag the development ‘dog’.

Alfonso Gumucio Dagron

Speaking at OUR Media 6 conference in Sydney this week, Alfonso Gumucio-Dagron, Managing Director – Programmes of the Communication for Social Change Consortium, cautioned about development agencies engaging in too much spin or public relations, and too little real communication.

Alfonso, a widely experienced and highly respected practitioner and thinker in development communication, lamented how institutional publicity is taking a much higher priority than communication as a social process that gives a voice to the communities and players involved.

Ah, finally a dev-com heavyweight echoes what I’ve been saying for some time! At every UN and media platform I could access in the past couple of years, I’ve stressed that catalysing wide ranging public discussion and debate on the MDGs’ core issues is far more important than simply enhancing ‘brand recognition’ for MDGs themselves. (That’s useful too, but as part of a wider process.)

On the eve of the MDG+5 Summit at UN Headquarters in September 2005, I wrote in an editorial published by SciDev.Net:

Today’s MDG promoters need to revisit some of the more successful development efforts of the past few decades — such as promoting universal human rights, eradicating smallpox, popularising oral rehydration salts, and wiping out Southern debt — and study the role good communication played in each.

Those in the UN system, in particular, have to find more creative ways of getting the MDG message across. In my view, MDG ‘branding’ is not what is important; it is the core set of issues that MDGs embody that need mass attention and aggressive promotion.

We should also invoke the memory of past visionary leaders who navigated the treacherous inter-governmental minefields to talk truth to power. One was James Grant, former executive director of the UN children’s agency, turned UNICEF into a formidable global brand.

One of Grant’s enduring remarks concerned the silent emergency of several thousand children (and adults) dying everyday from preventable diarrhoeal diseases. It was, he pointed out repeatedly, as if several jumbo jets full of children were crashing everyday — and nobody took any notice.

That metaphor might lack political correctness in the post-11 September era. But the message was loud and clear. Grants’ one time deputy at UNICEF, Tarzie Vittachi, was another master at summing up complex development issues in memorable ways. When he was head of information at the UN population agency, the former newspaper editor used to remind everyone: ‘Governments don’t have babies; people do.’

Read my full editorial in SciDev.Net in September 2005: Simpler words are needed to get MDG message across

Related links:

MDGs: Mind the development gap, Asia Pacific told

The Communication Initiative: Strategic Thinkin: Mind the Communication Gap

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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