In a recent blog post, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote, “I generally have the view that humanitarians are really bad at framing issues and marketing causes, because they believe so deeply in them.”
The comment was part of a dialogue he had with readers who were taking him to task for over-focusing on Westerners and Americans development workers when reporting on global health and development issues. Kristof argued that stories that had a relatable character, often a Westerner or American working in the region, resonated better with an American audience.
I wonder if the stories work not just because the ethnicity or nationality of the protagonist, but also the specificity in which the global issue was framed. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll on the U.S. role in global health found that while American generally don’t support foreign aid, they are more supportive of increased spending abroad for specific global health purposes. It matters if you ask are we “spending too much on foreign aid” or are we spending too much on “efforts to improve the health for people in developing countries.” People responded even more positively to U.S. spending for specific health outcomes, like preventing malaria, treating HIV or improving access to clean water.
Another recent poll found that 9 out of 10 American aren’t familiar with the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight time-bound development goals, that if achieved together will end extreme poverty by 2015. But after hearing more specific information about each goal, 87% believe the U.S. should be involved in accomplishing the MDGs.
Specificity matters. We can be better at marketing causes if we are mindful that people may not know a lot about an issue, particularly global issues that they haven’t experienced firsthand. But that doesn’t mean they won’t care. It’s our job as storytellers to explain the issue and make it relevant for all of our audiences.
I attended a UNAIDS reception this week where Annie Lennox was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the agency to use her voice to raise attention to HIV/AIDS issues. The reception was part of the Women Deliver 2010 Conference in DC. Women Deliver is a global advocacy organization that brings together voices from around the world to call for action against maternal death.
There was a sweet unscripted moment that showed the human side of this community of researchers, advocates and policymakers. From the podium, UNAIDS executive director Michel Sidibé was introducing Annie Lennox when he spotted Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.
He asked her to come up to the podium to sing with their guest. She laughed and made a joke that she knew she’d have to sing for her supper. And then she did! She sang a few lines of a song, adapting the last to be about working together on these issues.
It was a light hearted moment in the midst of very serious, and for many in the room, literally life-or-death issues. There are about 16 million women over the age of 15 who are living with HIV worldwide. In many parts of the world, women have a higher risk of HIV than men. HIV increases maternal mortality by 20 percent. In areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where women make up two-thirds of the people living with HIV, that number can rise to 50 percent. Advocates are encouraging donors to continue to fund programs that can keep people alive with effective treatment, cut mother-to-child HIV transmission during pregnancy and prevent HIV infection.
And what better way to advocate than with a song. Apologizing for a sore throat, Annie Lennox took the stage and belted out a song she wrote based on an educational song about treatment she heard in South Africa.
Facts and statistics help build a case and prove points. Stories can help people relate to the issues. But sometimes, a song can make you stop and listen more closely, whether it’s earnestly sung by a award winning artist or surprisingly by the head of the WHO.