Influencing policy, or: Why nobody in Germany will be reading this

The Building Support for International Development study provides a roadmap for the development community for connecting more meaningfully with key constituencies in donor-country discussions about international development policy issues and priorities. The study, launched by InterMedia in 2011 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, included qualitative and quantitative research with three key target groups, interested citizens, influentials and government decision-makers
My post focuses on the German case study of the project, mainly because I know the German context quite well and it's interesting to share some views on non-Anglo-Saxon development debates.

Nobody reads blogs and uses social media

Government decision-makers rely heavily on specialised and mostly formal sources to stay informed about international development. They use traditional media for current news and events, but generally not for information on international development. Government decision-makers in Germany did not cite any blogs and other social media as a source of information on international development.

What is important to keep in mind is that there is no newspaper equivalent to the GUARDIAN’s development site (which was not mentioned) or any newsmaker remotely like Nick Kristof. It shows the importance of the political foundations that do interesting work, but whose development work is usually only a small portion of their overall work. Honorable mentions for MSF and Oxfam, but overall a very gloomy picture, especially when it comes to innovative ideas or any story that is below mainstream media’s attention radar.

Any idea who
Horst Köhler is?

What has former German President Horst Köhler to do with international development? I have no idea. He was the head of the IMF prior to his presidency and maybe that created his credentials as ‘champion’. Bill Gates, Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan I can understand-although they are obviously very traditional choices, too.

You thought Think Tanks influence policy?!

Influentials rely heavily on specialised sources such as documents from development organisations and briefings from government departments to stay informed about international development. Traditional media sources are used as sources of background and contextual information on international development.
What I find interesting here is that none of the global Think Tanks seems to influence influentials. The German Development Institute, IDS in Brighton, Center for Global Development, name them, they are not on the list of influentials who do engage with foreign media sources such as BBC or Le Monde.
Influentials generally do not use Facebook and Twitter to stay informed about international development.
Ok, Twitter is not that big in Germany and at least a few blogs are mentioned. Duncan Green is an obvious choice, but I’m not sure how much Clay Shirky or Beth Kanter really talk about development. Those more ‘traditional’ experts who are active in the blogosphere (Easterly, Sachs, Barder, IDS, ODI etc) do not seem to influence German influentials even those who do read English sources.

Only men over 56 (ideally over 70) can champion development
And that’s only because of Bill Gates. Everybody else is over 70 (71, 73, 74, 78) and often more or less retired.

People want to see girls going to schools on TV
I’m being a bit cynical, but given that 52% believe that ‘access to education’ is the top priority in development and 74% learn about development on TV (Where? How??) this seems to be a fair summary. In addition to German politicians (Angela Merkel is one of the top champions for development), only Barack Obama and Ban Ki-Moon are mentioned as international champions.

A bleak picture for influencing development debates in Germany

[Citizens] do not actively seek out information on development issues, but mostly receive it passively, through prominent German TV and print media, such as ARD, ZDF, Der Spiegel and Focus.
And this has been the case since 1971 (or thereabouts). None of these media is regularly reporting on development issues and if they do, it’s in the typical sound bite way of mainstream media.
Influentals have very diverse information needs and require tailored communication and engagement strategies. Academics and NGO representatives require specialised and data-based information on their areas of interest, such as education, health and poverty. Media practitioners, on the other hand, look for broader information on development issues that helps them understand international development in a broader socio-economic context.
As much as I understand this point, I am a little bit surprised that the traditional communication model still seems to be in place firmly. ‘If information doesn’t arrive in my Inbox, it can’t be important’. There is no mentioning of any exploratory approach towards finding interesting material or new sources.
Government decision-makers look for robust, up-to-date data and impartial expert advice and policy input on issues they work on. They prefer to receive this information from trusted sources in their professional networks, international organisations, such as the World Bank and the United Nations, as well as prominent German foundations.
Again, I understand the business about ‘information overload’, but it’s interesting a bit disheartening that only organisations like the Bank or UN seem to provide ‘impartial advice’ which I would challenge on many levels.

All in all, I am a bit shocked that social media have not even begun to penetrate international development debates in Germany and that neither academics (German or international) nor Think Tanks (German or international-with the exception of the political foundations which are a bit of a hybrid) play a significant role in influencing debates. Traditional media (print and broadcast) are still the primary source of information in a market that is far behind any Anglo-Saxon innovation on reporting development issues (PBS, HuffPost, GUARDIAN development etc.).


  1. - Sorry in case this comes twice; I commented earlier today but I suspect my browser did not let me send it (in case you didn't approve my comment, it's fine, too, of course :-)

    Thanks a lot, Tobias, for pointing to this study, I would have missed it otherwise. I am from Germany and working in development and ever since I began discovering social media, I have been finding it quite sad that there isn't the slightest kind of development blogosphere in German. Not to mention your point of lacking media coverage of development topics.
    I guess this has to do with the fact that many Germans (including journalists and decision makers) keep regarding development as some kind of exotic niche that is not really connected to people's everyday lives. It is something happening far away (in "Africa") and done by some idealists wearing sandals and wanting to make the world a better place. So media, practitioners and bloggers should think of ways of how to better inform people about a) what "development" is about and b) why it could and should be of interest to people "at home".
    And then there is the language barrier - there are still many people who do not like to read English or other languages, making it difficult engaging in international debates or using international media; I guess for English native speakers it is easier to access a variety of media outlets. I am writing a blog in German but have been thinking about beginning one in English, too, because it is difficult to engage in dialogues with the international development and Africa blogosphere when your posts are written in German.

  2. Thanks for your kind comment, Claire...positive feedback from readers is always appreciated! I basically agree with all of your observations, but I was still a bit shocked that even so-called 'influentials' engage so little with social media and other English sources...even the GUARDIAN's development pages are very user-friendly and accessible regardless of your proficiency in English. This is also part of a bigger debate of how media consumption, politics and public debates have much less been influenced by 'the Internet' than many commentators assume. (Just a note on the side: I haven't seen any contribution from the Pirate Party to the discussion on open aid/aid transparency or any other development issue (ICT4D?) yet...)

  3. I didn't even think of the Pirate Party with regard to this but you're right, of course. So far, I am not aware of any contribution from their side but I suppose as they haven't yet developed positions on many other topics as well, it may take some time before they actually enter the discussion on this.
    I can understand that you say you're shocked but I guess that may have to do with you having lived abroad for some time (I assume you did from your bio). Having been living and working in Germany for the past few years, I am used to a certain provincial attitude towards international media and to an attitude of suspicion towards social media and "the internet" in general. There are very many people, including many of my age (that is 30somethings), who do not consider social media and online resources in general as being helpful and enriching for one's work and who lack interest in trying to check it out. Rather I know many who still consider anything related to "the internet" as either a burden ("I receive way too many emails at work") or for doing leisure activities (shopping, posting pics on Facebook).
    Even those working in development in Germany, at least many of those I know, are reluctant when it comes to using either social media or English sources for staying connected and following current developments in the professional field - some even kept telling me they did not have time to do so (implying I was wasting my time with this stuff instead of doing my assigned tasks).
    So yes, I agree with you, there are so many interesting and high-quality resources that one has to wonder why those responsible for decision-making seem to ingnore this. I suppose this will still take some years.


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