Method 4: Public education and development issues

This section includes the following:

  • Public ‘attitudes’ and aid issues – some implications for development education
  • Coming to public judgement on development issues
  • 7 steps in coming to public judgement – an opinion ‘learning curve’
  • Some key ingredients for success in the public education ‘learning curve’: learning from other movements

Public ‘attitudes’ and aid issues – some implications for development education

Debates and disagreements around the issue of overseas aid are in many key aspects debates about the core of DE – our sense of who we are in the world; what our roles and responsibilities might be and what our ‘duty’ towards the world’s poorest and most excluded could be.

Like most countries in the ‘developed’ world, Ireland has experienced ongoing debates about the overseas aid agenda:

During such debates, considerable time (and resources) has been expended on ‘measuring’ public attitudes via broad general surveys or more nuanced ‘sectoral’ studies. Opinion polls are regularly carried out to ‘measure’ levels of public support and the ‘public’ is then declared to be ‘more’ or ‘less’ in favour of government (or indeed, voluntary sector) aid programmes.

Ongoing lazy use of the these polls regularly leads to calls for more ‘public information’ campaigns to ‘inform’ taxpayers of the positive impact and benefits of such programmes – the assumption being that if the public knew more about the programme (and its good deeds), they would be more supportive, or in some cases, perhaps less sceptical or even hostile.

Under pressure to show progress and produce regular and immediate-impact good news results due to domestic pressure and financial cutbacks, the complexity of issues can be sacrificed for short term results.

In recent years, the very simplistic and one dimensional view of the public in the developed world has been challenged by a variety of commentators and campaigners who recognise the key role to be played by that public in building the development movement.

Assuming that the Irish public lacks basic information on aid and would inevitably benefit from yet more ‘facts’ (especially ‘good news facts’ that have little context; an exception to this has been the World’s Best News initiative developed by Dóchas and participating members) has led to the emergence of a ‘press release culture’ as the key strategy for building public support (see, for example the suggestion for an ‘increased marketing and creation of awareness’ approach to NGOs during a debate on the overseas aid budget at the Sub-Committee on Overseas Development on 2nd April 2009).

Research and debate on the issue, however, does not support this strategy and those of us involved in development education would do well to consider such research as it does indeed go to the heart of DE itself.

Taking one recent example, Eilish Dillon’s recent analysis (Spring 2015) in the development education journal Policy and Practice of national surveys on attitudes to development in Ireland is unequivocal in the challenges for DE as the annual deployment of public opinion surveys, sadly, only replicate modernist and paternalistic assumptions and are weak on advancing critical engagement:

‘…despite some reference to a critical discourse, questions asked in the surveys predominantly reflect modernist and patronising discourses of development.  These discourses reinforce stereotypical, depoliticised and ethnocentric assumptions of development, deny the complexities of the challenges facing the world today and present development cooperation largely, and uncritically, in terms of help or aid.’

Note: there are many articles discussing public opinion surveys and development within the pages of Policy and Practice: a Development Education Review – a good starting place for reading this particular issue further and available subscription-free online.

Coming to public judgement on development issues

One of the most interesting commentators on this issue has been Daniel Yankelovich, a US commentator and analyst on social values and public policy. Taking his cue from the environmental movement, the women’s movement and the broader development agenda, Yankelovich argues:

‘To assume that public opinion is invariably improved by inundating people with information grossly exaggerates the role of information and underestimates the importance of values and emotions.’

(Yankelovitch, D and W. Friedman (2010) in Towards Wiser Public Judgement, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press, p.15)

In terms of engaging with key social issues, Yankelovitch notes that people come to such issues:

‘…with a lifetime of prejudice, convictions, personal experience, information and misinformation…’

which often leads to a set of ‘resistances’ that information and facts alone (especially those coming from the top ‘downwards’) cannot address. Such ‘resistances’ include:

  • Public preoccupation with a variety of more dominant domestic issues
  • Ongoing suspicion of leaders’ priorities and motives
  • A perception/conviction that money is being wasted etc.

In order to engage educationally with such concerns, Yankelovich (and others) argue that we need to counter such logical concerns by:

  1. Providing positive reasons for wanting development assistance to continue and to succeed – arguing a combination of national and personal interest reasons as well as altruism i.e. mutual well-being, the security of future generations and of the planet – ‘regardless of location, we are all in this together’
  1. Making explicit the ways in which domestic and overseas development concerns are compatible – domestic concerns can be better addressed by linking them to broader international agendas and perceptions e.g. economic, environmental and social well-being in Ireland is inextricably linked to similar concerns internationally – ‘Ireland does not exist in a vacuum’
  1. Aid and broader development cooperation agendas need to be better delivered and must produce credible results – there is much to highlight that is positive but we must be honest and transparent about the failures, ongoing challenges as well as the successes – ‘we must not be afraid to criticise aid from Ireland and elsewhere’, ‘bland publicity does not help’
  1. Avoiding abstract terms and ‘specialist’ language – like so many other important areas of life ‘experts’ have taken over much of the development agenda (DE also?) and regularly use convoluted and unnecessary language to impress – ‘we need to challenge the cult of the ‘expert’
  1. Changing the process of communication with the public – ending ‘one way’ communication (‘the press release’) and working to build a strategy of genuine and ongoing conversation and dialogue with real (and not stage-managed) opportunities for public engagement.

7 steps in coming to public judgement – an opinion ‘learning curve’

The above analysis suggests a number of key issues that DE needs to address. Yankelovich adds to our understanding of the challenges by offering a ‘typology’ of ‘public learning’ – an approach we would do well to consider carefully.

He offers 7 steps through which public opinion evolves in order to transform raw opinion into considered judgement, which don’t have to be completed chronologically. Moving through these steps can take time, weeks, months, even decades but it can also be catapulted onwards by events and is also dependent in part on our actions and strategies.

The 7 steps can be understood as part of 3 stage process:

Stage 1: Consciousness Raising …largely media-driven, and news events are a major factor in expediting the process…

  • Awareness – becoming aware that an issue deserves public attention
  • A Sense of Urgency – recognition that an issue or challenge needs to be addressed as a matter of some urgency

Stage 2: Working Through …largely a social process as individuals work problems through in discussion with others until they ultimately achieve resolution for themselves…

  • Reaction – once people come to feel that a problem is urgent, they want to hear about possible solutions; this step begins once people begin to react to proposed solutions.
  • Resistance – a critical moment and one that is often least understood. Only when people have been exposed to specific policy ideas are their emotional resistances engaged with effectively; this step is one where individuals, groups and communities as well as countries confront and try to work through ‘resistance’.
  • Choicework – people often ‘stall’ on an issue as they work through their resistances; this is helped immeasurably by introducing and exploring ‘choicework’. This is the hard work of deliberating the pros and cons of alternative choices and strategies.

Stage 3: Resolution …people sign on, having ‘worked through’ both their emotional resistances and the cognitive weighing of pros and cons…People choose a course of action and are prepared to accept its likely consequences…

  • Cognitive stand – after ‘choicework’ people usually reach tentative conclusions, largely cognitive (own reasoning and thinking) in character.
  • Judgement – in this final moment people add strong elements of emotional and moral conviction to their cognitive conclusions.

Some key ingredients for success in the public education ‘learning curve’: learning from other movements

Time Variability: the environmental movement made significant progress after a period of some 30 years of consciousness-raising but, for HIV and AIDS, the process took less than a decade. North-South charity dates from the days of the anti-slavery movement, some 200 years ago, and has gone through various phases e.g. ‘starving babies’ (hunger emergencies) e.g. the Congo a century ago, China half a century ago, in Biafra, Ethiopia, Somalia etc. – ‘little seems to have changed’.

While the broader international development movement is much younger – roughly 50 years – it is old enough to have made more headway than has been the case.

The cogency or power of events: ‘Nothing advances consciousness-raising as powerfully as events that dramatise the issue.’ All too often, the events that dramatise development are usually portrayed in the media as a series of disconnected tragedies, having little to do with each other or with North – South relations. ‘Blame’ is apportioned to mismanagement, corruption or ‘natural’ events.

This has led to ‘simplistic’ and often wholly inappropriate ‘solutions’ and temporary measures – unpredictable aid programmes, peacekeeping, volunteerism and charity alone.

Publicity: in order to arouse concern for action people must be aware of an issue – messages must be clear and unambiguous, and quantity is an essential feature, both in getting the message across and in reinforcing it. Publicity needs many dimensions and strategies and not just one that is ‘top down’.

Where quantity is concerned, public messages on development are virtually non-existent compared with the bad news provided by the media and the frequently self-serving PR and fund-raising of NGOs (and governments) – there are alternatives, see the Dóchas World’s Best News project.

Perceived relevance to self: the women’s movement has ‘proved’ itself to have direct relevance to the large majority of people worldwide – people understand it in clear, personal terms. In the case of HIV and AIDS and some environmental issues, personal relevance has been fundamental to a readiness to grapple with solutions.

While sometimes development is marketed in ‘self-interest’ terms or from that of a ‘global village’ (a dangerous term’?) yet it remains distant in the lives of most people in rich developed countries.

Credibility: lack of credibility is a serious impediment. A great many opinion polls show that governments have especially low credibility where development assistance is concerned – the public just doesn’t believe what they are told and for good reason.

Although NGOs survive on public donations, the giving public is not the same as the entire public. Questions about credibility of NGOs as a source of information show that they too can have credibility problems.

Concreteness and Clarity: development messages from the media, from NGOs and from government agencies are confusing, self-serving, contradictory, and, more often than not, negative.

Although Yankelovitch is writing about public understanding of global warming, his argument resonates on development – ‘An inherently abstract and difficult issue has been made even more abstract and difficult by treating it in a fragmented way with confusing and misleading semantics.’

Table adapted from C. Regan and S. Sinclair ‘Engaging Development – learning for a better future’ in C. Regan (ed., 2006, 5th ed.) 80:20 Development in an Equal World, p.119.

For more see on this and related topics


  • Yankelovich, D. (1991) Coming to Public Judgement: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World, Syracuse University Press
  • Yankelovich, D. and W. Friedman (eds., 2010) Toward Wiser Public Judgement, Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press
  • Foy, C. and H. Helmich (1996) Public Support for International Development, OECD