To Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN Needs To Prioritize Strategic Storytelling

Nathan Edwards
February 14, 2022

The United Nations must pair its development agenda with a storytelling strategy that bridges political divides. Amidst shifting domestic politics among its member states, public opinion polls from 2019 and 2021 show that the UN retains positive public perception around the world. The UN can leverage this positive public perception, and ensuant trust, as tools to bring larger swaths of civil society into the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To do so, however, the UN needs to tell effective and accessible stories about development.

UNDP’s “don’t choose extinction” campaign

In October 2021, just prior to the Climate Change Conference ‘COP26’ in Glasgow, the UN Development Programme launched a campaign for climate action called, “don’t choose extinction.” The campaign centers around a short film featuring a dinosaur that enters the UN General Assembly and lectures country representatives on the dangers of climate change. In the video, Frankie the dinosaur warns onlookers that they are on a path to extinction if they fail to collectively enact environmental protections.

As the first film to be recorded in the General Assembly, and a rather provocative call-to-action, the “don’t choose extinction dinosaur” sent a ripple through media outlets and the multilateralism community alike, likely resonating most among those already committed to addressing climate change. This campaign, however, merely echoes the ideas of like-minded individuals, unlikely to bring new parties into the fight against climate change.   

Confrontational communication will not create change

In recent years, at the intersection of social psychology and political science, researchers such as Jonathan Haidt have explored the moral foundations that undergird entrenched and unwavering political beliefs. Moral Foundations Theory demonstrates that it is not just the message that matters, but the way in which it is delivered. Campaigns for social change have come to recognize this notion as well. Haidt’s work, placed in the context of political polarization, helps us to understand why confrontational approaches to political messaging can deepen divides, rather than bridge differences. Instead, engaging in societal values and individual morals such as care versus harm or loyalty versus betrayal, while intentionally sidestepping cognitive reasoning, can influence normative support for social issues.

The UN’s “don’t choose extinction dinosaur” campaign fails to engage across divided politics. It sends an important message, but one that will likely go unheard by those not already in favor of climate action. The film’s protagonist remarks, “let me tell you, and you kind of think this would be obvious, going extinct is a bad thing.” The patronizing tone of this content is likely to put on the defensive those not already in support of the message. The subsequent discussion of fossil fuel subsidies is inaccessible. And finally, the call to, “stop making excuses, and start making changes” could antagonize viewers.

The video does create an emotional response, but one of righteousness likely to stoke division rather than collective action. The recent People’s Climate Vote report, a global survey of 1.2 million individuals across 50 countries, found that 64% of respondents consider climate change an emergency. While this represents a majority, it also indicates that nearly 40% of respondents do not hold the same belief. Furthermore, beneath aggregate trends, there is evidence of partisan divisions. For example, a US poll from fall 2021 shows that only 19% of Republicans view climate change as an urgent problem and 56% say it is not a serious problem at all. If the “don’t choose extinction” campaign is intended to convince individuals to engage with issues surrounding climate action, as indicated by the strategy on the campaign website, then it needs to make its messaging resonate with those who disagree, and encourage of those who already agree. If the goal is solely to increase engagement among those who already believe climate change is an emergency, then the use of antagonism to incite action also seems misplaced.

The UN’s role in development communications

With positive public perception and widespread name recognition, the UN is well-positioned to create messaging that moves people. In fact, the agency already recognizes the importance of such strategic communication in pursuit of the SDGs, as evidenced by its Communications for Development (C4D) strategies that include Behavioral Change Communications and Communications for Social Change. Now is a critical moment for the UN to think carefully about its strategic communication and make a concerted effort to integrate its development agenda with campaigns that bridge differences in a divided world.

Globalization is not just an institutional phenomenon, but one that is also felt at a personal level. While the UN prides itself on its ability to affect normative change at an institutional level, it too must engage individuals. For those who believe in climate change, the need to address it is an issue of intrinsic importance. It is not political. For those who do not believe in the urgency of the situation, however, climate change itself is perceived as a matter of partisan politics. This rings true for issues of vaccine equity, gender equality, and countless other development priorities. These issues cannot be addressed agnostic of the challenges of political polarization. Communications strategies must recognize, and then target, the polarized politics in which progress has been ensnared.

Communication that balances apolitical advice and political engagement

While the UN attempts to remain apolitical, politics are an intrinsic barrier to its ultimate agenda. The UN is equipped to address this barrier at a local level by strengthening the ways in which it makes the SDGs accessible and meaningful to the general public. Grassroots engagement in the SDGs can incite upward incentives for policymakers to unify on universal agendas.

The UN has recently explored this capacity with its campaign against COVID misinformation, Verified. The campaign, “created content to reach global audiences that encouraged behaviour change around how people shared content online, while promoting reliable, science-backed information.”

Verified relied on the moral foundation of mutual care to galvanize a ground-up movement against misinformation. The campaign reflects an understanding of a key barrier to the UN’s global health pursuits, misinformation, as well as the need to bring the general public into the fight. Distinct from the dinosaur campaign, it refrains from antagonism and complex ideas. Instead, it acknowledges a common experience and offers actionable steps that any individual can take to support the cause. This approach ultimately aligns local actors with global health efforts thus bridging ground-up and top-down divides in pursuit of common goals.

Centering local voices in development stories

The UN needs to capitalize on its norm-setting capacity and design messaging that catalyzes collective action across political systems. It must engage the individual alongside the institution. In doing so, it too must recognize and combat the many pitfalls of storytelling in development contexts in which local experiences are often othered and the white gaze is pervasive. The UN must center local voices and contextualize development challenges within strategic storytelling initiatives.  Such a bottom-up approach to normative change can not only engender grassroots support for institutional priorities but also influence decision-makers at the top.

Grassroots communication strategies and global governance

Research shows that when norms and institutions align, institutional enforcement is strengthened. Member states will be held more accountable for their international commitments when their respective citizens are equally invested in the outcomes. The UN prides itself on both its power to convene global leaders and its ability to set normative standards. Were the UN to utilize its stature to increase support for the SDGs at a local level, it could indirectly apply soft pressure on member states to adhere to multilateral agreements.

Global governance faces a critical juncture. As global interdependence is catalyzed by challenges that transcend borders, sustainable solutions will only be found through collective action. Addressing issues like climate change, vaccine equity, gender equality, and many others, requires unified commitments and follow-through. The UN has embraced this moment with Our Common Agenda, a plea for member states to remain resolute in their commitments to the SDGs and the international cooperation needed to achieve them. Its efforts, however, would benefit from engagement from local voices and collective grassroots support for its goals.

The UN must look to engage across differences and create normative support for the SDGs from the ground-up. The organization is underutilizing its capacity to engage with civil society on the SDGs. It needs to go beyond traditional communication and advocacy frameworks and emphasize storytelling to bring the public into the pursuit of progress. The UN must be intentional. Media efforts such as the “don’t choose extinction" dinosaur campaign risk doing more harm than good. When the UN sends messages to the world, it must recognize who will be watching and how they can be moved. It must pair its development agenda with a storytelling strategy that bridges differences.

About the Author

Nathan Edwards (MIA ’22) is a Master of International Affairs candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs where he focuses on global governance and the humanitarian-development nexus. Nathan has a background in nonprofit consulting, including strategic planning, business modeling, evaluations, and integrated research processes. He has interned with the Humanitarian Crises Program at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University (CIC-NYU) and is a contributing researcher and author on the UNDP-IOM Multi-Year Roadmap for Cooperation on Migration and Sustainable Development in Moldova. Nathan is currently supporting UN-Habitat to increase community participation in public-private partnerships in Jordan. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @NateKEdwards.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.