Ireland is Europe’s fifth largest donor of humanitarian aid as a % of GNI (gross national income) and has a long history of relief work, particularly in Africa and we are on track to meet our (newly aligned) Millennium Goal targets. Even at a time when needs are greatest at home we continue to support our brothers and sisters across the globe. This makes me proud to be Irish and I’m not the only one who feels this way!
A recent opinion poll from Ipsos/MRBI commissioned by Dóchas (the umbrella group of Irish development NGOs) found that 85% of respondents thought that
Despite the ongoing recession at home, the Irish public believe that it is important to continue to invest in overseas aid
The large majority also believed that Ireland should be proud of its reputation as having one of the best overseas aid programmes in the world, with a total of 88% proud of this fact.
However the survey also revealed that the public remains sceptical about the difference the money actually makes to the lives of those they wish to help.
Just 44% of respondents believed that Sub Saharan Africa is better off now than it was two decades ago
It seems that public perception believes that our overseas development efforts are not working but they still think it worthwhile to give anyway because it is the right thing to do.
Irish overseas development is making progress
Overseas development, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where much of Ireland’s public and private aid is spent is making big strides. Minister of State for Trade and Development, Joe Costello says
Irish Aid has been recognised time after time, by independent international observers, as one of the best aid programmes in the world.
African economic growth has been accelerating over the past ten years and an urban middle-class is emerging and this growth is expected to continue even in the context of economic downturn in EU and US.
Hans Zomer, Director of Dóchas also tells us
There are good stories coming from the countries in which Ireland provides aid. In Mozambique, for example, 7 million children are now in school compared to 400,000 twenty years ago. In Uganda, HIV infection rates have been reversed.
Indeed there are many many stories of the positive impact of overseas aid.
Let’s portray the big picture?
Most people learn about overseas development from the media. Professional fundraisers tend to opt for simple messages that seek to emotionally jolt audiences into giving. And not to take away from the challenging work of my fellow fundraisers - we must try and connect with our audiences, quickly, simply, cost effectively and emotionally! But most NGOs’ marketing campaigns’ focus solely on ‘the Ask’. It is more challenging to portray the longer term story of development in any given country or region.
In the media too, news only becomes news when it’s bad news. So, attention on areas in the global south, only come to the fore where there is a disaster or a conflict. Haiti being a good example. We gave so generously but did it take a disaster to put Haiti on the map? Haiti has been struggling for years.
It should be no surprise that our understanding of everyday life in the global south or Africa is limited to something like a tragedy. It is hard for us to see how similar we are, the links, to understand that people in the global south have exactly the same needs, aspirations and highs and lows. It is hard for us to have the ‘one world’ view.
The challenge for Irish NGOs.
Marketing experts are telling us it’s time to take a longer term view, create the debate put out more informative and explanatory content and build more engaging, lasting loyal relationships with supporters and the public.
At a recent Dóchas/IDEA event on communicating development more effectively, when talking about the use of images of starving children, Helen Shaw (MD of Athena Media) gave the view that, beyond the ethical, a fundamental issue is, that continued depiction of shocking situations closes minds, and continued crisis messages dilute peoples' attention. Engaging people with these types of messages/images results in a short term hit, which, when overplayed actually loses support. NGOs need to look at stories that connect emotionally and then build on this.
The internet and social media present us with the platform to do so. New media gives us possibilities to engage our audiences, create more original content, more debate, it allows us to explain the more ‘complex’ messages about overseas aid and show what everyday life is like in the countries in which we operate – both the good and the bad sides.
The Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages
Some 67 Irish NGOs have signed up to the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages. ActionAid Ireland was one of its very first signatories. It is an excellent forum, the Code itself seeks to ensure balance in the way Irish NGOs communicate extreme poverty. It stipulates that NGOs must avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise or discriminate against people, situations or places.
By signing up to the Code and attending the meetings, ActionAid Ireland and Irish NGOs are collaborating and very much agree that rather than more shocking images of children starving, we want NGOs, the government and the Irish media to portray those in receipt of overseas aid as being empowered, and part of the solution. Because they are – it’s not a case of western societies giving a hand out, it’s a hand up.
Poverty is a violation of human rights and a terrible injustice. Poverty arises because of the marginalisation and discrimination associated with human rights violations. ActionAid has a distinctive human rights based approach to development that focuses on supporting people to become conscious of their rights, organise themselves and claim these rights and hold those responsible to account.
At all levels in society, the rich and powerful often deny the rights of excluded groups to keep control over resources and build individual wealth. By using a HRBA, we support people living in poverty to understand that many of their most fundamental needs are actually enshrined in specific human rights frameworks and that deprivation arises from the denial or violation of specific rights and is not their own fault. ActionAid help people identify and target those accountable (typically the state) for ensuring rights are realised.
A core part of ActionAid’s HRBA extends to our use of images and messaging. Our work seeks to empower others and we want our ads, images and messages to always demonstrate this too.
From simple things in our messaging such as avoiding talking about “poor people” which has an element of condescension, we prefer to refer to “people living in poverty”, which emphasises their common humanity and poverty being simply a state they are living in which we seek to end. Also, with regard to the use of people in photography, we always get permission (or in the case of children from their parents or guardian) and whenever possible we ensure individuals have the opportunity to communicate their stories themselves. We believe it is crucial that local people from the areas in which we work (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia) be part of creating the narrative for their own story, in explaining both the challenges and coming up with the solutions.
A nice example of how ActionAid demostrates our HRBA and the Dóchas code is the story of Sadia (pictured at the top). We used images of Sadia Abdullah from Kenya in an appeal to Sponsor a Child last year. Sadia and her family suffered greatly as a result of the East African Drought. One year on, happily Sadia is a smiling plumb little girl going to school again, all as a result of child sponsorship. Her family are beginning to rebuild their lives and move on. The horizon is so much brighter, ActionAid reported the update with lots of positive images of Sadia in a recent blog post.
Of course each NGO has its own unique challenges in implementing the Dóchas Code because all our business objectives and models vary. But for ActionAid Ireland and all the other signatories to the code, the bottom line is we agree for the need to build longer term relationships with donors and supporters, better explain where their money has gone and the impact and improvements it is making to people’s lives.
To make this happen I agree with Hans Zomer in that
We need NGOs, the Irish media and government to work together to build on the enormous support for global justice that is in evidence, and to demonstrate that choices we make in Ireland can have a big impact on people living in poverty overseas.
If we do so successfully, everyone will benefit.