How do we communicate global poverty?
By Hans Zomer
One of the easiest ways of getting people in the “Development” sector to agree, is to start a conversation blaming “the media” for their misrepresentation of global development issues. (Just have a look at the debate about the hugely popular “Kony 2012” video.)
It is easy, as most NGO workers feel passionately about their work and fail to understand why the rest of the world doesn’t share their passion. And it’s easy, as it is a simplistic analysis about “the media” and its biases.
Anyone concerned about global Development should invest some time and energy in this issue, as the way we communicate about poverty and development may well be the greatest challenge our sector faces.
Here in Ireland, support for overseas aid remains remarkably high. Despite an economic crisis that sees some 14% of the work force out of a job and the state borrowing 25 billion euro annually to finance public services, public support for Ireland’s aid programme has only decreased marginally. (see also this article about a Eurobarometer poll). Importantly, the cross-party support for Ireland’s aid commitments remains as strong as ever.
But some would argue that this support is “a mile wide but an inch deep”. Public opinion in Ireland is heavily influenced by the missionary tradition and the constant stream of images from Ireland’s prominent aid agencies, emphasising charitable donations, not engagement with the root causes of poverty. In short, in Ireland the “Live Aid Legacy” is alive and well.
A few years ago, Irish NGOs agreed a Code of Conduct on Images and Messages, in an effort to reduce the stereotyping and simplifications that often come with the competitive nature of NGO fundraising. The Code not only halted a certain race to the bottom, but it also sparked lively debate among NGOs about the ethics of NGO communications: What would be the right balance between information, education and fundraising needs?
But the challenge is bigger than merely improving the way NGOs do their public communications. It can be argued that the development sector is losing the debate on global social justice.
Longitudinal studies show that people’s concern about global poverty is decreasing slowly. After a peak in the early to mid nineties, and despite 20 years of Make Poverty History campaigns and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), research suggests that in most European countries the level to which “the public” is interested and informed about global poverty is going down.
It may not (yet) affect the level of financial contributions people are making to NGOs, but it does affect the way people think. As argued in e.g. the Finding Frames report, NGOs have thrived on the overall portrayal as poverty in developing countries being “out there”, and distinct from poverty at home. In their public communications, NGOs have tended to highlight those aspects of global poverty that suggest technical, rather than political, solutions, and have shied away from issues dealing with the processes and mechanisms that create and sustain inequality, exclusion and marginalisation. In this discourse, poverty is a-political, and aid is the answer.
The point is: “Poverty” is not merely about a lack of material goods: To be poor is also to lack control over one’s life and resources, and to be marginalised and excluded from social, economic and political processes that affect one’s life.
Poverty is profoundly political – reflecting inequality and injustice. And the inverse, “Development” is about reversing those inequalities and increasing the choices and opportunities available to poor people. Understood in this way, poverty in the developing world becomes intrinsically linked with poverty (and wealth) in richer countries.
That means that rather than poor countries having to “catch up” with Developed countries, “Development” should now be seen (and spoken of) in terms of transforming economic and political processes. Poverty should not be seen as merely a technical problem that requires financial inputs, but as a “thick problem”: large scale problems requiring large scale solutions.
Talking about the end of poverty in these terms makes sense conceptually, and it makes sense to ordinary people in rich countries. Most people here understand that poverty is intrinsically linked with the other great challenges facing humanity: climate change, migration, population growth, economic inequality and resource depletion. And most people here fully expect Development NGOs to engage with those issues. And most NGOs do.
It is time that our language about poverty starts to reflect our work more clearly. And it is time for Development NGOs to be more truthful about the complexities of their work. Our Code of Conduct on communications is a start, and one that can be replicated in other countries. But to remain relevant, and to really make an impact on the massive challenges they seek to address, Development NGOs must embrace the political nature of the work they do.
Entry filed under: Overseas aid. Tags: Africa, Aid, Communications, Development Education, Effectiveness, global poverty, Irish Aid, Irish NGOs, Learning, MDGs, Media, Millennium Development Goals, NGOs, Overseas aid, Smart Aid.