ATLANTA, Georgia – A new study by Chen and Berger has found that controversy may not be the conversation starter that we might think. While the media rolls out the most controversial issues in an effort to boost ratings, this approach does not necessarily get people talking. The study also helps us know how controversy impacts aid.
Chen and Berger use a combination online analysis and lab study to determine when people are most likely to engage in conversation. Using these methods the study sorts controversial topics into three categories: low, medium, and high controversy. Those topics that fall into the low and high controversy are found to spark less conversation than those in the medium category.
This is assumed because low controversial topics are not interesting enough to draw conversation. Highly controversial topics, however, are avoided because they cause too much discomfort.
So how do these findings affect global poverty advocacy? As an advocate, a person (or organization) engages another in a conversation about a particular topic, in this instance global poverty, with the goal of persuading the other to agree with their stance.
How controversial the topic may affect how willing the other is to engage in this conversation. So the question becomes, how controversial do people find global poverty?
There is of course controversy within the development community regarding the most effective and efficient means to combat global poverty. But viewing the subject from a foreign aid standpoint brings the focus to the wider-population’s views on the subject.
Focusing on America, national polls show citizens want to provide assistance in combating global poverty through foreign aid. However, according to a World Public Opinion 2010 survey, Americans believed current foreign aid spending stands at around 25 percent of the federal budget when in reality it doesn’t reach one percent. This perception often leads people to claim that foreign aid spending should be cut. According to a Pew U.S. public opinion survey from February this year, 48 out of 100 U.S citizens think U.S. aid to the world’s needy should be cut.
If the topic was more controversial, then perhaps the true percentage of foreign aid would be a more widely known figure. Constituents may then be more apt to ask their representatives to increase the US foreign aid budget. Or is the issue the high controversial nature of foreign aid and therefore the lack of conversation? Determining the level of controversy on this topic seem to be an academic exercise, but for advocacy organizations it is a relevant one.
In order to engage and influence the U.S.’s official development assistance budget, the conversation must be magnified at the grass roots level. Engaging constituents in a discussion about the importance of global poverty programs and their impact on the U.S., economically, socially, and militarily, is a key component. Even if the advocacy organizations fail to “win” all citizens to the side of foreign aid, at least the conversation will lead to a more informed populous on the subject. And, if national surveys are any indication, a significant percentage of American’s see the importance of combating global poverty. Getting these people into the conversation can only help.
– Callie D. Coleman
Sources: When, Why, and How Controversy Causes Conversation, Spring, World Public Opinion, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press
Photo: CAS Act