Fri, Dec 03, 2004 - Page 9 News List

How to sell the poor

Is the West really bored with stories about global poverty?

By Murray Armstrong  /  THE GUARDIAN , London


What do the television sitcom The Vicar of Dibley and the headline "25,000 Africans died needlessly yesterday" have in common? They are both, in their own way, challenges to the way we report world poverty.

The headline challenge comes from Jeffrey Sachs, UN special adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the millennium development goals. It could be used any day, he said, and it would be true. He was speaking at a conference last week, organized by the BBC World Service Trust and the Department for International Development, on the media and the fight against global poverty.

BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessy had brought along a clip from a special forthcoming edition of the sitcom about Dawn French's vicar, based around a letter-writing campaign from the Dibleyites to the prime minister, asking why he hadn't yet solved the first millennium goal to halve by 2015 the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day.

Both were held up as ways of changing our attitudes to reporting world poverty and getting development into the popular consciousness if we are to have an outside chance of keeping those promises made by world leaders in 2000. As it stands, the outlook is bleak. A straw poll on the BBC Web site found that 73 percent of users hadn't a clue what the millennium development goals were. Another indicator showed that, in a one-month period, the phrase appeared in British papers only seven times. Perhaps not surprisingly it was in the South China Morning Post 17 times and across the major African press on 593 occasions.

Richard Curtis, who created the sitcom and is also vice chair of Comic Relief, reckons it's time the gloves came off and the story switched away from funding.

"What's the story?" he asked. "People will say we've given enough to charity, now it is time for the politicians to act."

Sachs, an American, said, "I am living in a country that doesn't discuss these issues at all. The president of the United States has not ever mentioned the words `millennium development goals' in sequence. Not once."

The lack of knowledge about poverty in the third world is highlighted by the belief, according to one poll, of the majority of Americans that 20 percent of their taxes go to foreign aid. It is less than 0.1 percent.

The British ability to get the story across is little better. A study for the international development department four years ago found that 80 percent of the British public was informed about developing countries by television and that in a 10-year period relevant factual programming, outside of news, had decreased. Human rights, environmental, religious and cultural topics were being replaced by travel and wildlife programs.

Now it is worse. The research organization 3WE reported in May this year that factual international programming on Britain's four largest terrestrial channels was 40 percent lower last year than in 1989 to 1990, and what we get now tends to be travel programs, series following British adventurers, documentaries about Brits abroad, and reality game shows in exotic locations.

Enter Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown with the storyline. For Brown, next year is the crunch year. For the media, the opportunities for reporting on global poverty and the north's political initiatives, or lack of them, are laid on in a month-by-month program.

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