Engaging citizens for sustainable development: Core business for a better recovery

By the Co-Chairs of the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom): Nanette Braun, Chief, Communications Campaigns Service, UN Department of Global Communications, Amalia Navarro, Director of Communications, Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB) and Mathilde Schneider, Director of Communications, French Development Agency (AFD)

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

devcom-covid19Português / Español

Those of us who work in sustainable development need no convincing: to overcome global challenges, we need global collaboration and solidarity. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this need clearer than ever. We face vastly different situations, but we are all connected and all responsible for our common future. We can rebuild from this crisis if all of us – all countries and all citizens – play our part.

Yet, we know that not everyone is convinced about sustainable development, and some vocal critics are using this historic crisis to promote national isolationism. So how do you address people who want to go it alone and do away with multilateral organisations? It’s fairly easy to convince people to stay healthy by washing their hands, but how do you convince them to respect gender equality, reduce their carbon footprint or help achieve our other global goals?

devcom-covid-1For the recovery, development communications is core business

For development institutions today, communications has become core business, and the COVID-19 pandemic has seen us communicators rise to the challenge. We have had three big jobs:

  1. Providing accurate public information and guidance

Misinformation and fake news can spread fast, with harmful consequences, particularly on social media. Facing an “infodemic”, citizens – at home and in partner countries – need to know how to stay safe and adopt behaviours that can help “flatten the curve”. They need to know how the fight against the virus is progressing around the world: no country is safe until every country is safe. Our job as communicators is to provide them with facts, data and authoritative guidance on how to keep the disease at bay.

  1. Demonstrating action, openness and empathy

Sound information is also an crucial way to preserve trust in public institutions. Faced with the uncertainty of a pandemic, citizens need to know that our organisations have solid plans to rebuild from the crisis and are putting them into action; that we know what people are going through and are open to their ideas. Our job is to keep citizens up-to-date on our crisis response, build hope and provide people with space to share their feedback. Indeed, transparency, accountability and communications are an important part of what some experts are calling the new social contract.

  1. Responding rapidly to the concerns of our colleagues and partners

As COVID-19 takes its toll, many of our audiences feel insecure and anxious. Many still fear for their health and, in light of the economic outlook, fear for their careers. Within our organisations, our job is to help colleagues adapt to new working arrangements and stay informed about latest developments and decisions. With offices and projects around the world, we have been on constant call, making sure our partners, service providers and clients know that we are there for them.



Beyond the pandemic: building a new case for international co-operation

Until recently, health issues dominated the headlines. Many of our messages focused on how international co-operation can prevent and tackle global pandemics. These messages resonate well with UK citizens, for example.

Yet, other issues have quickly returned to the front pages. We have to address the menace of systemic racism and discrimination. We have to explain how our institutions are helping tackle the devastating economic and social aftermath of the pandemic. And we need to deal with another underlying crisis that will define our times: the climate crisis.

Coming out of the pandemic, our organisations need to convince everyone that the world can and must recover better, by building greener, more equitable and sustainable societies, and we must engage our audiences to become part of the solution.

For development communicators, it feels like make-or-break time. Has there ever been a better time to show people how our work matters?

Based on our conversations within the OECD Development Communication Network (DevCom), here are three things we need to do if we want to engage citizens for sustainable development:

  1. First, we need to reinvigorate support for international co-operation. In our interconnected world, we are all in this together. Our narratives need to demonstrate that development co-operation is not only about altruism; it involves new challenges, actors and tools. Sustainable development work is an investment in everyone’s interest, and there is a lot of progress needed in all countries, no matter what their income levels. Our messaging here needs to be based on a deep understanding of our diverse audiences – including the skeptics.
  2. Second, we need to modernise how we engage citizens, both online and offline. Many organisations were planning to meet with young citizens in person this year, for example at music festivals or in town squares. In a period of physical distancing, we need to use new digital communications formats, tools and channels that engage both hearts and minds. In order to reach the many young citizens still suffering from the digital divide, we need to strengthen our collaboration with our education systems.
  3. Third, we need to become better listeners. Good listening is about showing empathy for people’s concerns and realities. It helps bridge divides and shows that there is no “us” and “them” in development. And best of all: if we let others do the talking, we may even find that they can make our points better than we can.


The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted rifts and inequalities in our societies. It has stopped many of us from meeting our friends and families. However, it has also brought us closer together, reminding us that our shared future depends on global solidarity and international co-operation. Many global leaders have pointed the way forward, including those that signed the Joint Declaration of the Alliance for Multilateralism.

Yet, political declarations are only part of the solution. For our goals to become a reality, we all need to become activists and campaigners, and encourage our audiences to follow suit. That is why we are supporting the #ActNow campaign, which challenges citizens everywhere to make their own commitments to sustainable development.

Now it is your turn. Please join us and, together, we can build back better!

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