Need to review international donors’ policies regarding awareness advertising budgets

International donors spend billions of dollars in aid to developing countries. This aid is intended for basic services such as education, water use, health care and supporting democracy and human rights. In addition to direct support for activities in these areas, part of these budgets is allocated to activities commonly referred to as ‘awareness raising’. The concept is correct that many of the problems facing developing countries are based on vicious and harmful habits, whether it is excessive cigarette smoking, lack of water conservation and hygiene, or lack of knowledge about family planning. and other reproductive rights, as well as gender equality and the promotion of democracy and human rights.

To understand the amount of money and how it is being used, it is worth looking at the spending in Jordan by major donors such as the US, EU and Germany. According to official U.S. government records, “since 1946, the U.S. government has provided more than $17.3 billion in foreign aid to Jordan.” The U.S. government has committed to spending $1.4 billion annually to Jordan through 2029. This amount includes security assistance and direct government funding, but USAID spends a significant portion on a variety of development and humanitarian issues.

For its part, the European Commission – the EU’s funding body – has granted Jordan €902 million in 2023 alone. Germany, the third-largest donor, has signed an agreement to support Jordan worth €619 billion.

USAID funds directly support reducing infant mortality, equal access to education for Jordanian and refugee students, increasing the availability of drinking water, and improving sanitation for millions of Jordanians.

EU funds support entrepreneurship, private sector development, transparency, water security and education development. German funds go to water, sewage, public sector modernization, vocational training, technical education, private sector development and the implementation of economic reforms.

Reviewing development literature, press releases, and public commentary, it is clear that some of this large-scale funding is aimed at changing behaviors that help Jordan’s people lead healthier lives, save water, and encourage gender equality and good governance.

The European Commission, for example, regularly raises, among other things, “awareness programs for the public sector, the private sector and civil society organizations on the values ​​of integrity, ethics and transparency principles and the risks of corrupt activities.”

Germany talks about supporting water conservation, dealing with solid water and improving recycling.

In all publications devoted to donors, the term awareness-raising dominates.

These awareness-raising efforts can be easily seen on road signs, on buses, as well as on mainstream television, radio and newspapers.

Almost all campaigns include the logos of donor countries. Large advertising companies and mainstream media earn millions of dollars/euros from these campaigns.

Donors are aware that almost all Jordanian media that publish their newspapers and finance their campaigns are directly or indirectly owned by the state. Thus, although the government owns Jordan Radio and Television, as well as the Mamlaka News satellite stations, it indirectly owns the Al Rai and Ad Dustour daily newspapers, exercising majority or overwhelming control through the Social Security Corporation, a government agency.

Moreover, the leading radio stations Hala, Amen and Hawa Amman are respectively owned by the army, the police and the city of Amman, whose mayor is appointed by the government. Even the owners of some private media are entrepreneurs with close ties to governments, mainly for business and bureaucratic reasons.

This means that huge funds from American and European taxpayers are spent on media that are a solid part of the government and whose journalistic neutrality is not ensured. An example of the lack of journalistic professionalism is the fact that the annual human rights reports of the US Department of State, the European Union, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations are not even mentioned by these state-owned or controlled media.

It is logical that any awareness-raising media campaign that will have an impact must be carried out in the media with the greatest public reach in Jordan, whether government-owned or not. Understandably, supporting state media is certainly not the goal of donors. Nevertheless, what is happening is that by supporting them with huge advertising subsidies, Americans and Europeans (and other like-minded countries) are strengthening media that are not entirely professional and neutral.

How to gradually switch to reliable media

Government donors claim that media selection for awareness campaigns is determined by contractors who base their choices on audience research. Audience reach (not trust) research is conducted by one trading company in Jordan. Regardless, while awareness campaigns do use high-impact media, this may be true, but it doesn’t mean donors can’t insist that their advertising dollars be spent in a more integrated way.

This is possible in two ways.

Donors may insist that advertising budgets go to media that is certified as trustworthy. There are many global certification mechanisms that review media and issue certificates of credibility. One of such certificates is the Journalism Trust Initiative run by the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Journalism. Donors can simply insist that media outlets that receive taxpayer money have a certificate of trustworthiness. It’s true that there are almost no such media outlets today, but using these millions of advertising dollars could encourage media outlets, even state media outlets, to make the necessary changes so they can get certified. Currently, only one Jordan-based media NGO has received such certification.

Until this change occurs, donors can at least insist that awareness-raising contractors diversify their spending to include small but trustworthy media outlets. This would help struggling media outlets while allowing donors to stick to their overall goals.

Top world leaders have spoken publicly about the need for support from trustworthy media, but little has been done to translate these statements into action through budget and donor policy decisions. The October 2023 meeting of the World Economic Forum noted that trust in news media around the world is low and declining in our polarized world. He called for “urgent collective action by many stakeholders to rebuild trust in the media ecosystem, confront disinformation and promote media literacy.”

Some donors are slow to understand the importance of independent media and allocate part of their budget to help independent and trustworthy media. This temporary effort is helpful, but it does not meet the long-term needs of ensuring stability and sustainability for trustworthy media. A much better complement to these efforts is to find ways to support media through advertising budgets.

Controlling advertising budgets is much better than direct media funding, which some might consider an unfair methodology, even though governments in many developing countries already heavily fund the media.

The importance of trustworthy media has increased in recent years due to the proliferation of digital content and platforms. Major Western donors should think strategically before blindly supporting state media with an unconditional advertising budget. Instead, they can and should ensure that the same rigorous process that applies to the distribution and operation of grants also applies to how and where advertising budgets under these large grants are spent. It is possible to achieve both goals of reaching a wide audience while supporting local and trustworthy private and community media to continue to operate and survive. Donors’ top priority should be to diversify their advertising spending, followed by serious efforts to ensure that all advertising budgets are used in line with the donor’s ethos.

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· The author is the CEO of Social media network, a Jordanian non-profit organization that runs the Radio al Balad community and news website In 2022, it was the first MENA media outlet to be certified as a trusted media organization by the Journalism Trust Initiative.