For decades, the Danes have been asked about their support – or the opposite – for both official and NGO development cooperation once a year. In general, a majority of the population has been supportive, although in recent years the numbers have not been impressive. In March, a small selection of 1001 persons were asked by the media called Altinget [has a focus on politics and parties] their opinion about the impact of development cooperation, i.e. if people think that it works or helps? The results were like this:

  • 8 percent: Very much so.
  • 37 percent: To some degree.
  • 31 percent: Only to a small degree.
  • 13 percent: Not at all.
  • 11 percent: I don’t know.

Depending on your state of mind and political inclination, you could highlight that 45 percent are very much or reasonably positive about the contribution from development cooperation – less that half of the population, or you could point out that 44 percent are very sceptical about its role – almost half of the population.

Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen, the Secretary General of Danchurch Aid, states the following after being presented with the numbers: “Of course it is a challenge that only half of all Danes believe that it works. We need to be better in communicating what this is all about.”

Michael Aastrup, the spokesperson for the ruling Liberal Party, has this comment: “I am convinced that there is no disagreement about the need for help during a natural disaster or war-like situation. But I believe there is a concern about the real impact of our long-term effort to combat corruption and poverty. The honest answer is that this is difficult. I understand the scepticism.” However, having seen what is taking place in many countries, Michael Aastrup is certain that development cooperation can make a difference.

In March, when the survey was undertaken, Danish Television screened a film called ‘Liberty’ about the life and work of Danish and other Scandinavian families in Tanzania. The film presented a very negative impression of both those working with development and the local population, focusing on dysfunctional individuals, lots of corruption, sex and violence. Danes watching the four one hour sections of the series could very well have concluded that money used for development cooperation has been wasted.

A standard response from leading members of the development community, including the NGOs, seems to be that “we need to be better at explaining and communicating how this works”. I can of course only agree that it is important to communicate even more and even better than we have done in the past. However, I also believe that there is a challenge for the NGOs in reconciling the simplistic understanding of development that often is seen in the campaigns they run with the more complex reality facing organisations involved in development cooperation. This is not least the case when the 12 major NGOs come together for the annual fundraiser on television, which I have previously critisized for being superficial, simplistic and outright incorrect. How can you expect Danes in general to be convinced about the impact, when media tell the stories about failures and difficulties, compared with the ‘human touch stories’ often accompanying the messages from the NGOs [and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for that mater].

Years ago, some of us argued that unless we were ready to communicate openly, honestly and transparently about all aspects of development cooperation, including the failures, we would not win the support and hearts of the Danes long-term. After all, we know from five decades of development cooperation  that ‘development’ is a complicated phenomenon and a complicated process; development includes dimensions of politics (ideology, parties, elections, governance), social structures (family, community, nation), economics (production, ownership, investment, trade), international relations (sovereignty, foreign policy, cooperation). This also means that one country or one NGO will rarely be able to state with certainty that we were the ‘mothers and fathers’ of the positive change later recorded. However, failures will often be attributed to you!

In addition, development has a significant dimension of time, which needs to be appreciated when we try to understand how societies move from point A to point B over a period of say 25 years. What made it possible for a developing country to achieve X, Y and Z in a certain manner during such a period? What were the conditions and circumstances that defined the journey? It is not easy to present this in a simple manner and in the time normally allocated by media to issues like this.

Rather than just calling for more and better communication, my suggestion is for the development community to confront the difficult challenges they are in the business to deal with in a ruthlessly honest manner!