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Image captured from page 19 of the Polis report.

Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector, a study conducted by Polis, (the journalism think-tank within the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics- LSE) with Plan UKlaunched yesterday in London.
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The study complements several pieces of research released over the past year or two on the UK public’s perception of foreign aid, development, giving, and the NGO sector; including Intermedia’s Building Support for International Development, the UK Public Opinion Monitor/Institute of Development Studies’ What Does the Public Think, Know and Do about Aid and Development? report, the Oxfam/Bond/DfID Finding Frames report and the Overseas Development Institute’s Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development.

Whereas the other reports focus on various aspects of how the public sees charity, development and foreign aid, the Polis report gives a window into the debates and challenges of those working in advocacy, marketing, campaigning, fundraising and communication departments at INGOs. As my Plan UK colleague, Leigh Daynes, writes in the introduction:

‘…Our work to inform, to educate, to campaign for change and to recruit long-term supporters to fund change is valid. Often it is life-saving. Yet the least understood area of our work often is the impact of our communications on public understanding of and support for aid and development. The public are telling us they are saturated with suffering, that we are charming or disarming them into acts of compassion, and that we are abusing their emotions….

…Understanding the impact of the “lingua franca” of our industry matters because it has fuelled a template approach to the media reporting of suffering. It matters because the exponential growth in access to mobile and social media technology and platforms means we are no longer the de facto guardians we once were. And it matters because it speaks to the power between us and them, and you and me.’

As more and more research is done, the ways that the sector is shifting become clearer and I hope we will start to see some positive changes in the aid and development industry and the way it communicates with the general public.

Some angles and voices that could help round out the discussion are still missing, however. I would like to see research on the opinions of local and international staff managing programs on the ground. Most organizations have fierce internal discussions on how marketing and fundraising is done, as program staff often feel that some marketing and fundraising approaches are demeaning, disrespectful and undignified in their portrayal of program participants.  (For more on this, ask Talesfromthhood to share some of his blog posts with you, join some of the discussions on AidSource, or follow the #smartaid hash tag on Twitter). Some program staff worry that the long-term impact of media and fundraising shock tactics and overly simplistic messaging ‘cancels out’ the short-term gains achieved through program or emergency aid funding – a point that is raised in some of the research above – and that this contributes to two-dimensional views on aid and development and to the negative stereotypes about certain countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that deter longer-term development and self-determination. It would be interesting to know more from this perspective.

What do donors want? Image captured from page 9 of the report.

At the same time, INGOs are hard-pressed to come up with different and viable ways of funding their work, so this type of campaigning and fundraising continues. Although I’m familiar with some of the challenges my marketing colleagues face, I was struck seeing the kinds of donor demands that INGOs are expected to meet listed in the report. I was reminded of something a marketing colleague once said: ‘Poverty porn. That’s a good term. It is a lot like real porn. People don’t like to publicly admit to watching and responding to it, but in private it’s another story. People say they don’t like poverty porn and sad, desperate stories, but when you look at the numbers, it’s what makes them reach into their pockets and give.’

I would also like to see some research with the subjects (unfortunately often presented as ‘objects’) of INGO aid and marketing materials.  How do program participants feel about how they are portrayed? What impact does it have on them and their own perspectives and self-determination, if any? Strong voices on this come from diaspora communities and from blogs such as Africa is a Country, Uganda 2012: Trending Our Own Stories, and great projects like My Africa Is; but I’d also like to see some in-depth research and objective focus groups that talk with those who are most often shown in INGO marketing. Are people aware of how they are being represented? Do they care? Many of us speculate about this when we bash ‘poverty porn’ but I’ve yet to see published research that involves actual ‘beneficiaries’ of INGO programs or people and communities appearing in INGO marketing and fundraising pieces in this discussion. (Maybe I’ve missed it – if you know of  any, please share!)

The ‘Who Cares’ report notes in the conclusion that:

  • transparency, accountability, ‘value for money,’ and impact are becoming more important to the donor public
  • public trust is a central concern for NGOs in their work and their communications
  • the sector needs to assume more collective responsibility for ethically appropriate portrayal of disaster victims (eg, in compliance with Article 10 of the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct)
  • new technologies and competition mean that fundraisers are seeking supporters outside of their traditional constituencies
  • traditional gatekeepers of aid are being challenged by new media’s ability to put donors and ‘beneficiaries’ in more direct contact

As INGO institutional leadership space opens up to more people from ‘the global South’, diaspora communities grow, social media allows for commercials and fundraising appeals to reach global audiences (including people in the countries where INGOs implement their programs), attention is paid to the ‘new bottom billion‘ and new fundraising mechanisms arise (for example, INGOs raising funds within countries where they are implementing programs), it will be interesting to see how the conversations and approaches shift and change — or if they remain the same with new actors taking on the same challenges.

Stay tuned for further research and reporting over the next couple of years from Polis and download the report here.

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