Good News is no News, and that’s Bad News

Written by Terence Wood

I don’t want to sound like one of those New Zealanders who moves to Australia and then spends the rest of their days lamenting the fact that everything was so much better back home. But the following statistic always leaves me feeling a little nostalgic for the Land of the Long White Cloud.

When a representative sample of New Zealanders were  surveyed by the firm UMR Research in 2007 [pdf], 76 percent of respondents stated that they thought the government should give aid. Yet, at the same time, only 29 percent of those surveyed expressed confidence that New Zealand aid “actually helps people in poorer countries”.

You couldn’t find a better expression of the Kiwi Battler spirit if you tried: aid probably doesn’t work but we should give it anyway. It is, no doubt, the same sort of sentiment that keeps us sending cricket teams to play you Australians year after year.

Of the two figures, the first is fairly easily explained: New Zealanders can see the moral case for aid. By the standards of these things, we are a pretty fortunate country. Relatively wealthy, relatively well governed. And there are a lot of people out there worse off than us. So the decent thing to do is help them out.

The second figure is a more puzzling. Why are New Zealanders so sceptical of the efficacy of aid?  They’re not alone in their doubts: over half of the respondents to a recent survey of UK residents thought that “most UK aid to developing countries is wasted.” (Although, oddly enough, Australians seem to be more confident when it comes to the efficacy of their government aid [pdf]).

One answer could be that the average New Zealander is simply well informed and well aware of the fact that aid doesn’t work. But the best available evidence suggests that aid does work. It isn’t a panacea and its success isn’t guaranteed, but in areas such as health, education, and conflict prevention, there’s good evidence to suggest that aid assists in building better outcomes. (I’ll write more on this in a future post but, for now, for examples, see here, here, and here).

I think a much more likely reason for the pessimism of my compatriots is a form of inadvertent media bias. To be clear, what I’m talking about here isn’t a concious bias on behalf of journalists or media proprietors (although I think it is fair to say that some conservative media outlets are opposed to aid and unafraid to let this show). Rather, the problem is to do with the sort of stories that lend themselves to news clips and newspaper articles in the first place.

Generally the sort of story that lends itself to being summarised in a newspaper article or in a news snippet is one involving a degree of certainty and a discrete event (or series of discrete events). Also, the sort of story that actually sells newspapers typically requires controversy, or conflict, or at the very least, risk. This is why most of the stories we read about crime are to do with specific criminal acts (‘Man Murdered in Mount Isa’, ‘Assault in Ainslie’, ‘Break in in Belconnen’) rather than overall trends (which were actually getting better last time I looked) or detailed studies of the social causes of criminality.

And in the case of aid what this means is that the majority of stories about aid tend to be ones of scandal and/or failure: claims of poorly targeted funding for education in Indonesia; allegations of misappropriated tsunami relief money in Samoa; scandals over how much consultants are paid by AusAID. These are all newsworthy stories (although I’m not sure if the Indonesia and Samoa stories are entirely on the money) but the trouble is they’re not the whole story of aid. Missing is the stuff that doesn’t easily lend itself to headlines. The fact that human development indicators are improving the world over. The long slow eradication or treatment of a range of series illnesses through aid funded work. The probability, based on cross country statistical analysis, that — despite a number of high profile failures — aid has helped stave off conflicts in new democracies. These aren’t the sort of things that inspire outrage, or lend themselves to headlines (“Aid May Have Have Reduced Infant Mortality by 0.25%.”) But they’re also stories of success. And if people don’t hear or read them, they’re not getting the full picture when it comes to aid. It’s true, they can get positive stories from the glossy reports of aid agencies and NGOs, but people tend to be sceptical of this sort of information, for good enough reason.

And so, when people hear about aid, for the most part they hear of problems and failure. And this, I think, probably goes quite some way towards explaining the aid pessimism of New Zealanders and people in the UK. I have to confess that I’m not so sure why Australians seem more optimistic, although for what is worth, negative news still plays a role in public debates and decisions about aid in this country. Take the example of the Coalition’s suggestion to defer funding for the Indonesian Schools programme as an alternative to Labor’s flood levy. It seems unlikely to me that that particular programme would have been targeted if it hadn’t so recently been the subject of criticism in The Australian.

This sort of media-induced aid pessimism is problematic. Clearly, in the New Zealand case it hasn’t stopped people from supporting giving aid. But it’s probably made this support more fragile, and more prone to being withdrawn in times of fiscal stress.

More importantly, in any donor country, if all people hear are tales of what didn’t work, they’ll never learn what works, and why. And if all people hear are stories of failure, they’ll be more likely to be swayed by simplistic calls to do things differently. The current New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs appears to be counting on exactly this as he reshapes the New Zealand aid programme. He’s made no attempt to gather or disseminate systematic evidence that the old aid programme was failing to produce results. Instead he’s simply asserted that Things Were Wrong. And thus far he’s gotten away with it.

Quite what the solution is to this problem, I don’t know. Obviously, the solution isn’t that the media abandons its watchdog role and stops reporting bad news about aid. This still remains a crucial transparency mechanism.

Nor do I think the solution to this dilemma involves aid agencies and NGOs simply churning out more glossy good news propaganda. As I said, I don’t think the public finds this particularly convincing. They also deserve better. Instead, I think we (we being people involved in aid) need to get a lot better at painting a complicated picture. One that includes success as well as failures, caveats as well as emotional appeals, and real insight into the complexities of aid. I don’t think this will be easy, but I do think it’s important. Either as voters, or as people making donations to NGOs, the public helps shape the way we give aid. And they’ll do a much better job of this if they’re well-informed.

Terence Wood is a PhD student at ANU. Prior to commencing study he worked for the New Zealand government aid programme.

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Terence Wood

Terence Wood is a Research Fellow at the Development Policy Centre. His research focuses on political governance in Western Melanesia, and Australian and New Zealand aid.

6 Comments

  • Hi again Robert,

    You write: “The potential to really damage the generosity of taxpayers and donors is not media negativity, but the incompetence and corruption of both ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ in the wider aid industry.”

    I think this point illustrates the essence of that disagreement which lies between us. I agree that the best way to make aid popular is to make aid work. Yet, when it comes to aid failures, it is not just “incompetence and corruption of both ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’” that causes aid to fail. Part of the problem (quite possibly the major part) is that development happens to be very difficult. If it wasn’t, the problems of the developing world would have been solved years ago.

    This means that even the best aid programmes are going to fail at times. Money will be lost to corruption, mistakes will be made, and unintended consequences will blight even well-designed projects. Some aid will still work, despite all this. And the difficulties of development can be overcome within aid agencies (up to a point) if they are open about failures and if they take the time to learn from them.

    The trouble is, as the latest ‘scandal’ in the Murdoch press illustrates nicely, that the current media environment creates strong incentives for aid agencies not to be open about failure. On top of this, an ongoing obsession with low overheads, which I blogged about a week or so ago, means that aid agency staffers are often too busy to learn from mistakes.

    What can be done:

    1. Scandals still need to be reported on. But please, let’s stick to the real scandals when doing this.

    2. Development successes need to be promoted. And promoted via some sort of mechanism that’s more effective than aid agency reports.

    3. Aid agencies need to find a way of being open about failure that doesn’t lead to media crucifixion.

    4. Aid agencies need to devote time and staff to learning and doing things better.

    cheers

    Terence

  • Thanks Robert,

    That’s a very interesting comment. I’m travelling at present and struggling to get on the internet. I’ll aim to reply at length next week.

  • Yesterday’s stories about fraud in AusAID projects were ‘shock-horror’ stories and certainly brought out a lot of negative comments that are potentially very damaging to public support for foreign aid.

    The stories, I agree, do illustrate Terence’s point about negative stories in the media. I also agree that they diminish AusAID’s achievements in fraud detection and management. For those who worked hard to achieve that result, it must be very galling indeed. On the other hand, I am sure that if they had a voice, the poor and other intended beneficiaries would be happy to see such exposure of corruption.

    In answer to Terence, yes, I do recall Adelaide’s Sunday Mail running a good news story about the AusAID project in Flores, Indonesia, but that was back in 2002. Since then, I have not been a regular consumer of Australian newspapers having been in Indonesia almost continuously. So, I would agree that the balance appears to be on the negative side.

    Yet, I still feel very uncomfortable about the issue. There are two reasons for this. First, it does not seem entirely reasonable “that the media should be focusing on the overall effectiveness of Australian aid – how it makes a difference to the lives of people in poor countries and what can be done better” when, at the same time, the donors have not vigorously promoted their own successes in the press, and worse, neglected them in their own subsequent projects.

    To cite some cases of this neglect: the successful AusAID projects in NTT, the NTT-Primary Education Partnership (NTT-PEP) and in East Java, the Indonesia-Australia Partnership in Basic Education (IAPBE) were not scaled up in either the now concluding Australia Indonesia Basic Education Program nor in the new Education Sector Support Program (ESSP). This is despite the fact that they built on an earlier sequence of very successful projects, in the case of IAPBE this was USAID’s Managing Basic Education Project. IAPBE, in turn, contributed to later projects including the EU project implemented by UNICEF, the Mainstreaming Good Practices in Basic Education Project (MGPBE).

    Having funded MGPBE, which was largely intended to verify and disseminate good practices developed and implemented in Indonesia by Indonesians — at Government of Indonesia request — the EU, which is a partner of Australia in the new ESSP has, along with AusAID, turned its back on the success and future-oriented lessons learned from MGPBE (and earlier & current projects) and embarked on a new project that seeks to implement, yet again, developmentally weak and problematic strategies from the past.

    This use of weak and problematic strategies leads to my second point: it is these weak strategies — particularly, the top-down approach, school construction, and large scale training — that provide just the opportunities for corruption that are far less likely to occur, if at all, in the good practice projects named previously here.

    To reiterate my point from yesterday’s comment:
    “The potential to really damage the generosity of taxpayers and donors is not media negativity, but the incompetence and corruption of both ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ in the wider aid industry.”

    Why create unnecessary opportunities for corruption and fraud at all? Is it because these ‘big’ strategies of construction and large scale training are an effective way to move huge sums of donor dollars quickly and to ‘look good’? If such weak strategies are to be used, then don’t shoot the messenger when things go wrong!

  • Hi Robert and Matt,

    Sorry for my delayed and brief reply – I’m havin internet issues. To clarify my position:

    1. Yes the media should report bad news stories about aid.
    but
    2. If the public is ever going to have a full understanding of aid it needs to also hear of the slow and qualified, but real, achievements too. This clearly doesn’t happen enough.
    and
    3. The media needs to be responsible in it’s reporting. As Matt mentions the latest round of stories sounds like a beat up. This will hardly be the first time.

    Robert,

    I have a question for you: your article on schools was published in the Australian, while your more positive article was published in the JP. Can you ever recall the Australian running a positive story on aid? Or any of the Australian Murdoch owned papers for that matter?

  • Robert,

    Thank you for sharing an interesting perspective on the role of the media in ensuring greater accountability of aid programs and in partner countries.

    The media beat up today on aid fraud highlights the point that Terence makes about the media having a scandal and pessimism bias, rather than objective critics of the aid program.

    AusAID has an excellent track record on controlling corruption in aid and doesn’t deserve shock headlines such as ‘Millions lost in AusAID foreign aid scam’ or ‘Foreign aid program stifled by corruption’. The numbers in their own stories don’t even back up the headlines!

    http://www.news.com.au/national/millions-lost-in-foreign-aid-scam/story-e6frfkvr-1226027078871#ixzz1HUrtUcAg
    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8228294/foreign-aid-program-stifled-by-corruption

    That AusAID is transparent about the 175 cases of fraud and keeps levels of malfeasance to such low levels–0.017 of 1 per cent of the $20 billion that was spent between 2003 and 2010–are very much to the credit of the aid program.

    Rather than beat up non-stories, the issue that the media should be focusing on the overall effectiveness of Australian aid–how it makes a different to the lives of people in poor countries and what can be done better.

    It’s a shame that today’s stories suggest that some of Australia’s press isn’t yet willing to provide ‘high quality evidence’ for this kind of analysis, and that’s bad news for both the aid program and our democracy.

  • Terence Wood laments that he does not know what the solution is to ensuring that good news stories about aid get more media coverage than those reporting the failures and the problems.

    I share this concern. It was mainly because of this concern that I wrote, with a colleague, a really ‘good news’ story in 2007 about successes in an Indonesian education project supported by USAID, the Managing Basic Education project, (http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2007/04/07/cherishing-wonder-indonesian-schools.html). That story attracted no comment whatsoever! In contrast, the critique I wrote about Australia’s planned aid to Indonesian education and the potential for waste in The Australian on 10 January this year (http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/thats-no-way-to-aid-indonesia/story-e6frg6zo-1225984624088 ) continues to attract comment and citation, including in the blog by Terence Wood.

    Negative newspaper reporting reflects the way the media world operates. To take Indonesian education as an example, day-by-day millions of children attend schools supported by development partners, they receive enhanced tuition in better-managed schools, and countless small miracles are performed in classrooms by dedicated teachers that are never recognised, never reported. Why? Because it is expected that these kinds of outcomes will be achieved and so they are not newsworthy. However, when there is evidence of malpractice, incompetence, corruption, and evidence that plans are not achieved the media takes a much greater interest.

    This media interest is essential in a democratic system, especially in a young democracy like Indonesia. The Indonesian press is currently doing a very good job of this kind of reporting and casting light into the dark corners of malfeasance that have been under-reported for far too long, thus allowing the corrupt and the incompetent to lead very comfortable lives at the expense of the poor in their own communities. Corruption is also discussed in the international media, for example, in the recent edition of The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/18399113?story_id=18399113). Terence rightly notes this important watchdog role for the media.

    Currently, the Indonesian press is highlighting the failure of the majority of Indonesia’s District governments to distribute funds to schools (http://bectrustfund.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/sanctions-await-regions-over-delayed-bos/) and has reported that the Ministry of Education has now been referred to the National Ombudsman by Indonesia Corruption Watch over this matter (http://bectrustfund.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/govt-mismanages-bos-fund/ ). Yet it is these same districts and central government agencies that are meant to be organising themselves to manage and participate in the big, new Australian project. Why should we have any confidence that Australia’s Indonesian partners will be able to do this when this current matter, and other field experience, suggests that it is unlikely? Does this kind of ‘negative’ reporting not tell us something important about Indonesian government administrative competence that can feed into Australian plans and strategies?

    My hunch is, and I have no empirical evidence for this at all, that media reporting of aid is now also much greater in Australia than at any time in the past. This kind of reporting is almost certainly the case in Indonesia since the overthrow of Suharto. Whether this hunch is correct or not, I do believe that a much earlier public awareness of the issues around aid may have prevented some of the worst of aid failure of the kind documented by Steve Berkman in The World Bank and the Gods of Lending (Kumarian Press, 2008) and by William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden (Penguin, 2006), and provided a better chance for millions more to graduate from poverty – and very much sooner – than has been demonstrably achieved to date.

    Yes, I agree with Terence that a lot of aid has worked. What I am saying here is that greater exposure and public discussion of the failures and successes might have led to better outcomes in developing countries a lot sooner. I suggest that the evidence supporting this position is illustrated by the fact that donors are still providing development funds to countries like Indonesia more than 60 years after aid began! Australia’s support for development in Indonesia has continued and dates back to at least the inception of the Colombo Plan in 1950 (see: Auletta, A. [2000]. A retrospective view of the Colombo Plan: Government policy, departmental administration and overseas students. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 22, 48-58.)

    I do not see the issue of aid-induced pessimism in quite the same way as Terence. If such pessimism leads to the kinds of extreme reaction we have seen by some to stop aid, then I do have concerns with it. If it causes aid to be ‘more prone to being withdrawn in times of fiscal stress’ – and if that aid is poorly conceived and implemented – perhaps it should be withdrawn. How do we justify spending money on aid because it feels good or is seen as ‘the decent thing to do’? But if the pessimism causes the aid industry and political leaders to be more professional in the way they use the available evidence to support and carry out high quality, high impact programs, then newspaper pessimism is a potential force for good.

    The potential to really damage the generosity of taxpayers and donors is not media negativity, but the incompetence and corruption of both ‘givers’ and ‘receivers’ in the wider aid industry. The media can play a major watchdog role in demanding more robust and evidence-based strategies for development than some strategies we have seen proposed for Indonesia in the recent past.

    But herein lies another fundamental difficulty – where is the high quality evidence of what works or otherwise in specific sectors? Why have donors generally been loath to undertake and publish rigorous, independent and continuing research and evaluation of how aid works in specific sectors such as in Indonesian education? Why is independent project evaluation usually such a last-minute, rushed affair without time for more representative data gathering and deeper analysis?

    And this is not the only challenge. We also need to ask why donors ignore the existing available evidence on what does work. Specifically, in the case of the new Australian education program, both Australia and its partner, the European Union (EU), have ignored the accumulating evidence over the past decade of what works, including from the EU’s own recently concluded and successful project, implemented by UNICEF, the Mainstreaming Good Practices in Basic Education Project.

    Robert Cannon is an education development specialist who has worked in this field in universities and in the aid sector since 1974.

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