Humanitarian Appeals: Messages and Connotations

30/01/2012 at 2:40 pm 2 comments

Guest post by Emer McCarthy and Grace Duffy*

Our perceptions of the Developing World shape our interactions with it. The media can play a role in creating tensions and negative, over-simplified connotations of the Developing World. The competitive nature of NGO fundraising and media communications can encourage NGOs and the media to emphasise and sensationalise the poverty and direness of life in the Developing World. It is often reasoned that the full potential of fundraising from the general public will not be achieved unless provocative images are used, that is to say that images and messages of empowerment and success are believed to be associated with lower levels of response. The real challenge is in representing and satisfying a need whilst remaining true to reality. The research project, “Humanitarian Appeals: Messages and Connotations”, was a result of a four week study initiated by the TCD-UCD Masters in Development Practice and supported by Dóchas.

The aim of the study was to examine the extent to which Irish NGOs are using images and messages in their public communications. We analysed whether specific NGO communications can have the effect of reinforcing notions of charity and giving as solutions to poverty and inequality, or if they connote justice, empowerment and complex and structural change. As part of this study, a literature review and a number of interviews were conducted. The interviews were held with Dóchas members, exclusively signatories of the Code of Conduct on Images and Messages involved in Horn of Africa 2011 humanitarian aid.

The Code was introduced by Dóchas in 2007, with the purpose of delivering a structure to support member organisations in designing and implementing their public communications. The Code itself is not to be understood as positive images versus negative images, but instead to provide a truthful representation of the situation whilst maintaining dignity. Our purpose was to gain an understanding of what the Code has meant to each organisation, and how useful the Code and its guiding principles have been to the communication strategies of these organisations.

Publications such as The Live Aid Legacy: The Developing World through British Eyes: A Research Report”, illustrate the one-dimensional view of developing countries that many British people have, fuelled by the dominant paradigm of the Live Aid Legacy. The report emphasises the power of the stereotype: the relationship between the UK population and the Developing World is characterised as ‘powerful giver’ and ‘grateful receiver’. Pieces such asReflecting the Real World? How British TV Portrayed Developing Countries in 2005 , “Building Public Awareness of Development: Communicators, Educators and Evaluation” and Campbell’s “The New Visual Stories of ‘Africa”, emphasise the lack of understanding by the general public of the realities of the Developing World, and the need for a realistic portrayal of development. Distressing images and justification of their use for the purpose of fund generation has been criticised as an oversimplification of the problems and solutions of poverty.

“A shepherd with no livestock, in Toricha, near the Ethiopian border. All his livestock died during the recent drought.” Christian Aid Ireland / Branwen Niclas Publication: Winter 2011 Magazine, No. 37, p.13 Date: Winter 2011

From the interviews, it was clear that the choice of media used is determined by the resources available to the NGOs (staff numbers, money, etc.). The extent and duration of an organisation’s emergency appeal is reliant on media space, media focus and the emergency’s presence in the public consciousness. The urgency of humanitarian needs means that many organisations feel compelled to show the direness of the situation to evoke as large a response as possible, however with mindfulness to avoid undignified imaging and messaging. An emergency situation is where the Code can face its greatest challenges.

In an emergency appeal needs are so immediate that success and ‘happy’ images cannot always be portrayed. Emergency appeal pictures can be dignified even if they create uncomfortable sentiments. As long as the reality of the situation is portrayed and not sensationalised, they can still be Code-compliant. For the majority of NGOs considered in this research, the Code complemented pre-existing, stringent NGO standards and ethos. These strict, internal codes were particularly evident in NGOs that were part of a wider international NGO base.

The subjectivity and interpretation of the Code guidelines are topical, with personal or organisational perception playing a role in judging whether images are distressing or connotative of dignity. Internal codes are generally so rigorous in these NGOs that the Dóchas Code is naturally complied with. As such, the Code serves as a complementary, tangible and advisory reference instrument, assisting in creating focus and providing guidance when designing humanitarian appeals.

At present, as part of the 2011 Dóchas Work Plan, the Dóchas Development Education Group is reviewing the Code with the aim of strengthening it. The results of our research have led to the following recommendations:

  • Further and more in-depth training on the Code
  • More definitive Code guidelines
  • Monitoring of Code adherence

* Emer McCarthy and Grace Duffy are students in TCD-UCD Masters in Development Practice.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. galwayowc  |  01/02/2012 at 11:30 am

    Interesting … as a side note we just finished a review of print media’s coverage of global issues (similar to 2008 research) and a high number of articles classified as negative in their depiction of the Global South are either direct messages by NGOs in the form of letters to the Editor or reports by volunteers send by NGOs. Neither are urgent in the sense of an emergency so surely some care could be taken in the wording of the letter / pre-departure training of volunteers? The report will be available on our website ( soon or by contacting us directly at

  • 2. R Storey  |  07/05/2012 at 5:03 pm

    The Code is all about presentation rather than the need for transparency and accountability which if followed would ensure factual reporting and honesty in the work undertaken. Unfortunately the Code is introduced because of falling interest in development while the NGO / Aid messages become ever slicker in seeking to extract the most money from gruelling narrative and “heart-rendering” images.
    If NGOs were up front about the work they do rather than in the latest form of packaging then there would be less need for such a code to project postive images.
    If NGOs are doing a good job then there should be plenty of positive stories and images to offer the public. The “starving child” images continue to be used and are rarely if ever followed up by pictures of healthy happy children and adults.


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