For the first time in history we’ve got a perfect advocacy message, but challenges remain

19 Apr

Owen Barder adds an April 17 statement by World Bank President Jim Kim to his century-long list of leaders who have declared about once a decade: “for the first time in history, we can end poverty”. Owen had already published this list 3 months ago.

Why does this phrase keep recurring? One thought (not original to me) is that advocacy messages are driven by what works best for advocacy, and not by any necessary relation to reality.

“We can end poverty” — the task is doable, the cost is manageable, it’s almost easy.

“For the first time in history” — this answers a question implied by “we can end poverty”: if it’s so easy, why didn’t it already happen?

Another version of what works best for advocacy was given by a World Bank press release the same day (April 17) as the Kim statement in a story on poverty numbers. Here was the headline

Remarkable Declines in Global Poverty, But Major Challenges Remain

As shown by this headline, the best advocacy message is in Goldilocks land. Things are getting better (for which we get the credit), so that kills pessimism that is bad for advocacy. However, it would be bad for advocacy if we are too hopeful,  because that works against the urgency of ever greater effort and funding.

“But challenges remain.

This phrase deserves special recognition because it surfaced in a private discussion some development folks had a while ago as winning a stiff competition for the worst and most meaningless cliché ever. Does this distinguish poverty from any other problem? Is there any issue anywhere where no challenges remain?

What is the lesson?  A bit more evidence that official development agencies lack accountability if they keep repeating stock phrases with either no connection to reality or no meaning at all.