Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Turning words to deeds (and other thoughts)

(Caveat: throughout this blogpost I refer to the ‘developing world’ – an oft contested term. It is not an ideal term though it is the one I identify with most, more than ‘global south’ ‘third world’ and other similar phrases used to describe, broadly, the same countries. I prefer developing world as, for me personally, it speaks of movement, and change, and countries that are progressing which in my limited experience is quite apt. Similarly the term beneficiaries isn't ideal but I feel it makes sense in this context.)

This time last year I was in the midst of dissertation doldrums. I was transcribing interviews, double checking references, harassing everyone I know to proofread chapters to make sure what I was writing was making any sort of sense. It is only now, one year later, that I am fully able to go back and look at it again. And, while it is definitely not some ground-breaking paradigm-shifting piece of work, it did attempt to explore some questions that intrigued me. Questions such as:

  • Does the portrayal of developing world disaster stories in the press present stereotypical and demeaning portrayals of the events and victims?
  • What implications does this have?
  • Are there better ways of telling the stories of aid and development?
Dissertation Word Cloud
These questions continue to intrigue me.

My understanding of the topics and concepts I encountered in my dissertation has been broadened and deepened by living in Kenya for the past 10 months. My theoretical knowledge of the nuances of situations such as the HOA crisis has been turned into something far more practical. I traveled to Garissa as part of my role with UNICEF and got to see for myself the pastoralist communities who have settled outside the town. Many of them have come from Somalia, but other have come from remote villages in the desert between Kenya and Somalia. Many are newly arrived but others have been there for many years, driven there by drought and failing rains, in the hopes of finding better opportunities. Many continue to rear, albeit often smaller, herds of camels or goats, carving out a living in the dusty surroundings. They are proud, they are resilient - for they have had to be. 2011 was not the first time that the rains failed, and it will not be the last. They have adapted, in varying degrees, to the new conditions they find themselves in.

So how do we begin to get some of the nuances of these stories across to people who will never live in a developing country, or even visit one? How do we explain development with all of its challenges, complexities, contrasts.

There have been numerous studies carried out in the past year trying to make sense of these issues and it is these that I will mainly be drawing from in this post.

Many people who work in aid and development, and particularly anyone who has ever worked in public fundraising in the sector, are convinced that the public would give more if they knew more. ‘If people just knew what was happening in the Sahel, they would act’. Would they? Evidence suggests that many people see the appeals, read the newspaper reports on famines, natural disasters, and don’t act. And if a gap between knowing and acting does exist, how do we bridge it? How do we turn words into deeds?

We must first look at some of the potential causes of this disconnect, this passivity.

Is it the fault of the way in which NGOs frame the discussion? Communications by humanitarian agencies have for decades emphasised ‘giver power’ and, in doing so, portray those people in the developing world as the opposite – recipients, beneficiaries, victims. They are no longer agents of their own destinies but subject to the generosity, or not, of someone far away. Therefore if these images are portrayed over and over again, do those givers begin to feel dejected? ‘Didn’t I give already?’ ‘Why are things not changing in Africa?’

This theory is borne out by research carried out by Dóchas and IDEA (through IPSOS/MRBI) in April of this year. 31% of the 1000 people surveyed thought that the situation in Africa was more or less the same as it was 20 years ago. A further 14% thought that the situation on the continent was worse. More detailed results from the survey can be found here.

This is often in contrast to the reality. While Africa continues to lag behind other parts of the world in most development indicators there is no denying that great strides have been made in many areas. African economies are amongst the fastest growing in the world. And the huge drop in child mortality across Africa is something that ought to be recognised. There are still far too many children dying from preventable causes - roughly 21,000 every day - but significant progress has been made as this figure stood at closer to 40,000 in the 1980s. As Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas put it:

The research suggests that, despite clear progress in many developing countries, the good news stories from Africa are not reaching the general public. We now need a broader approach to informing the Irish people about the contribution that we in Ireland are making around the world.

NGOs are extremely sensitive to these criticisms and there has been a noticeable shift towards more positive imagery, and towards showing people in developing countries as empowered, as making changes for themselves and their communities. In Ireland the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages is a voluntary and self regulated set of guidelines that over 50 NGOs operating in Ireland have signed up to. Some of its guiding principles include stipulations that organisations should:

  • Choose images and related messages based on values of respect, equality, solidarity and justice.
  • Avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise or discriminate against people, situations or places.
  • Ensure those whose situation is being represented have the opportunity to communicate their stories  themselves. 
And yet this was the front page of the Irish Daily Mail on August 3rd last year.

Now the code only applies to NGOs and not newspapers, and even then it is completely voluntary, but I still think that the fact that this image was chosen by the paper’s editor is still telling. Aid organisations themselves also seemed to fall back on these images in times of crisis justifying as simple fundraising logic. They are torn between wanting to show the humanity of the beneficiaries of their work, while at the same time communicating the urgency of their need for support. NGOs are under pressure to raise funds, fast, and so turn to images that they know will provoke an emotional reaction. These emotional reactions are not always predictable however, and the images can sometimes trigger anger at the way in which people at the frontline of famine or conflict are portrayed. (See this article for more information on this point)

So how can things be changed? How can we re-frame the way in which relief aid and development interventions are portrayed and, in so doing, help people to reconnect with people who living in the developing world?

At a gathering held as part of LSE and Birkbeck’s 3 year research project called ‘Mediating Humanitarian Knowledge’ NGO professionals in attendance put forward some of their own suggestions. One of the suggestions that came of these discussions that although organisations are often 'in competition' with each other, for funding in particular, they should aspire to and practise greater collective responsibility. Forums where organisations can debate their approaches and styles of communicating global suffering can constitute informal means of regulation for the sector. (This is already happening to an extent in Ireland through Dóchas with its C-Cubed initiative and others - see below) These professionals also recognise that their role as mediators of the relationship between donors and beneficiaries is changing. Already survivors of emergencies and beneficiaries of development aid are being seen and heard more often in television appeals and via new media platforms that potentially enable longer-term, more personal connections between supporters and beneficiaries, and between NGOs and their beneficiaries. The trend is for supporters ultimately to connect directly with recipients of aid, which is challenging the traditional role of the NGO as the gatekeeper. Could these future direct connections help people to understand aid and development better? And would this increased understanding make people more empathetic and likely to support humanitarian crises when they do occur?

And there is also recent research from the point of view of the public. Earlier this year the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, in conjunction with the Institute for Public Policy Research, published a report entitled 'Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development'. 
The research drew many conclusions, one of the most important of these conclusions that the general public want to hear more stories about process and progress not just stories about input (money spent) and output (children educated). Accordingly, campaigns should communicate how change can and does happen in developing countries. Rather than a simple reassurance that 'aid works', people want to hear about how and why it works, why it doesn't always work, and the reasons why aid alone cannot achieve development targets. For example, humanitarian and development agencies have not been very good thus far in explaining the different ways that money gets to the people on the ground, or how larger organisations partner with smaller, local ones, in order to work in different communities and contexts. Explanations like this could help to clarify why agencies need to spend a certain portion of their funding on administration and operational costs in order to deliver services more effectively. 

Helen Shaw, a communications consultant, speaking at the C-Cubed conference (C-Cubed standing for Creatively Communicating Complex Ideas about Development) organised by Dóchas expressed some of her own recommendations on this topic. She believes that equality and balance in communications about aid and development should extend not only to treating the aid recipient as an equal, but also to treating the public as an equal partner on a shared journey towards change. At present, the public is asked to support and donate, but without being involved in the complexities of the aid and development debates.

I agree with Helen Shaw, and also to the related point made by the 'Understanding Public Attitudes' report. I think that the public are often presumed not to understand, or are portrayed as unwilling to engage in these discussions when this is not the case. Social media, in its various forms, provides a potential platform to transform readers and listeners of traditional media into active participants in debates about international development, humanitarian aid and similar topics. 

And that this is what this blogpost has attempted to do - it has tried to ask pertinent questions, to provoke discussions. And that is hugely important. It is the very first step to changing anything. But it's also important in its own right.. To end on a slightly cheesy West Wing quote:

We're going to raise the level of public debate in this country and let that be our legacy.

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