Transforming our discourse on poverty and social justice
Thomas Geoghegan, Dóchas
In a recent article, ‘Beyond Charity’, Martin Kirk, Head of Campaigns, Oxfam UK, summarised his thoughts on a lot of recent research and thinking on communicating development.
While he speaks to the UK’s experience, our sector is a global one and there is much in this polemical article to challenge us here in Ireland. This blog summarises his contribution to the debate and draws some implications for Irish NGOs.
What’s the problem?
NGOs have a problem: the scale of their ambition is greater than their abilities to deliver their stated goals. This can be because their missions are aspirational or visionary or because, at worst, NGOs can be dishonest and cynical about their goals or it can be a bit of both. Either way, NGOs, as expressed in strategic documents and public communications, believe that massive scales of transformative change are achievable.
To bring about these transformations, NGOs – in this case, the large UK NGOs – spend huge sums of money on fundraising and awareness raising – £165 million in 2009-10. And are remarkably successful in doing so. With such a large economic footprint, something must indeed be working – but what?
In his paper, Martin Kirk points to a large and growing body of evidence showing that the way NGOs are communicating may actually be reversing the progress made in public understanding of global poverty and social justice issues since the Live Aid days.
Despite major global campaigns, for example Make Poverty History, the British public continues to perceive ‘aid’ within a ‘charity frame’. Frames are what cognitive scientists call the deep, underlying logics that people use to make sense of the world, which influence our behaviours. They can be activated by words, images and sounds – the can be reinforced, and they can be transformed.
Research carried out by the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Overseas Development Institute found that, in the context of NGO communications in the UK,
Perceptions of ‘us’ (in Britain) and ‘them’ (the global poor) are commonly moralistic and judgemental, and that many are motivated to help in order to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’. Further, a common refrain … is that ‘nothing has changed’.
If NGOs truly aspire to radical systemic change and eliminating the structural causes of poverty and social injustice, then the charity frame and how NGOs ‘do communications’ works against this. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, the charity frame works within an understanding of the world as it currently is and restricts the scale of action to a narrow set of activities that tend to maintain negative stereotypes and the charity frame itself.
The second reason is what Kirk calls the ‘uncritical application of consumer marketing methodologies’. NGO communications and fundraising teams use a model that has been designed for selling products – it asks: how can I persuade X to do Y – right now? But this logic triggers values of individualism and selfishness which, research shows, are antagonistic to the values of universalism and benevolence which priorities the needs of others and reveals the bigger picture (see the ‘circumplex’ model). The marketing methodology also prioritises short-term pay-off over much longer timeframes that are needed to effect deeper, lasting transformation.
This is not to say that neither the charity frame nor the marketing model cannot or should not necessarily play a role (NGOs have their reasons for choosing one model over another), but evidence-based analysis is requiring us to ask some hard questions if we truly want to achieve our stated goals.
We can ask ourselves if Martin Kirk’s picture is accurate when he describes the NGO sector as a quasi-homogenous group whose members either focus on immediate relief or systemic change, often both, and are ‘mostly a muddle’ in terms of communication and campaigning.
What’s the solution?
At the macro-level, there needs to be a new discourse on development that Kirk describes as:
Grounded in ideas of justice and equality, taking into account the realities of modern networked life in a complex and multipolar world, rich with diversity and profoundly interdependent … [T]he new narrative should have at its heart an understanding of the systemic ‘diseases’ that underlie the gross injustice of mass poverty. It should centralise the agency of people in poverty themselves and tell a story of how people in the global North can work … alongside them, rather than ‘save’ them.
A practical outcome of research in the UK has been Oxfam’s GROW campaign and the relatively new social justice campaign, TheRules.org (with Martin Kirk’s involvement), which clearly sets out its stall as one communicating a systemic, global and empowering narrative.
Looking to Ireland, if we agree that this is where we want to go, then, Kirk warns, changing the message and the language will not be enough. NGOs will need to do more to find out not just what but why people believe what they do and how to change it. This will have to be a collective adventure that looks ‘out there’ and peers into inner space of NGOs (and the sector more broadly).
The first step is to set in motion a research agenda, which could, among other things, involve some of the following activities:
- Create a space for NGOs and social scientists in universities to meet and conduct deeper research and analysis on public perceptions and cognitive frames in Ireland, to develop a new, shared discourse and to develop methods and tools for deeper engagement in the Irish context.
- Take an analytical look at who NGOs employ, what they reward and their working assumptions and norms.
- Develop a longer-term vision far beyond 5-year strategy cycles – ask what would a twenty-year, values-derived vision for development sector look like and how we could we get there. This may involve the risk of short-term losses for longer-term gains.
- Develop tools and methodologies to embed this deeper thinking within NGOs and to sustain momentum.
Perhaps not everyone will agree with Martin Kirk’s analysis. Commenting on the article, Owen Barder from the Center for Global Development says,
Kirk’s paper raises the question of whether it is fundamentally contradictory for an organisation to try to do both. Presumably some organisations – like Oxfam and Action Aid – would say that they are successfully straddling the divide which Kirk says cannot be straddled.
But there is enough in this article to get us thinking. Such steps begin with acceptance amongst ourselves that action is needed. This begins with a critical analysis of the complex environment we work in and to honestly ask ourselves if we are undermining our own objectives by how we go about communicating them.
‘Discourse ethics’, pioneered by Jürgen Habermas, contends that speaking is also an act that alters the world, and that places on us an ethical responsibility. If we are working to build a social justice movement alongside people in the global South, we will only be as successful as the people we inspire and mobilise in the global North. And what if we are, with the best of intentions, working towards this in a way undermines that very same thing?
If we are, then surely we have a duty to take action. Indeed, this is a debate Dóchas has recently been promoting in Ireland.
- Martin Kirk’s full article is available online.
- More information and research findings are available at the Values and Frames site.
- Owen Barders blog on ‘Beyond Charity’ is available here.
- Dóchas’ opinion poll on public attitudes to overseas aid, launched at the C(cubed) Conference can be downloaded here.
- Duncan Green’s slightly more blunt explanation of frames and communicating for social change
Previous Dóchas blogs on communicating development
- What’s the message? Communicating development better together
- How do we communicate global poverty?
- Stopping Kony, or stopping video activism?
- Irish NGOs and social networking – think relationships, not campaigns
Entry filed under: Communications, Development Effectiveness, NGOs. Tags: Cartoons, Code of Conduct, Communication, complexity, Development Education, Dochas, finding frames, global learning, global poverty, Irish NGOs, Learning, NGO stereotypes, NGOs, Overseas aid, Poverty, Public discourse, public engagement.