SDC Director Patricia Danzi had this to say in marking the 60th anniversary of the organisation: "We must learn how to convey what international cooperation is about today. Today's international cooperation is not what it was 30 years ago. The world has changed and with it, communication. We now share a common language at international level: the 2030 Agenda.” The anonymous pictures of emaciated children have all but disappeared from the mailings and websites of aid agencies over the past decade. But has this also signalled a change in the manner in which western development organisations talk about the global South?
There are over 100 ZEWO-certified charities in Switzerland committed to making the world more habitable for all. There are also dozens of other non-certified associations. They are all striving to alleviate hardship and lay the groundwork for sustainably overcoming poverty, hunger and injustice. They are well-versed in communicating the content of their work and bringing their donors closer. They strive to create understanding for the plight of people in need, to strengthen the commitment to concrete assistance, thereby enhancing their own effectiveness.
Through their communications they strongly influence public opinion on societies in the global South. Extensive fundraising campaigns convey emotions that convince donors to contribute. Whether in the form of regular reporting in smaller circles or of well-crafted direct marketing initiatives, they help shape the perception of injustice, poverty, misery and violence on the African continent, in Latin America and in Asia by means of imagery that reflects urgency.
Acid test for development organisations
The business of communication represents a challenge for development organisations. It must be repeatedly legitimised vis-a-vis politicians and the general public, at the same time attracting donations and undertaking awareness-building as an essential part of its civil society mission. To properly do justice to all these aims, organisations have invested appreciably in their communication strategies over recent years. Yet they are especially challenged when it comes to their narrative about the global South. That is where they have to pass the veritable acid test of their credibility.
The criticisms confronting development organisations in the West are many and varied. The very media-savvy activists of nowhitesaviours.org from Uganda, for example, have come forward to denounce what they see as the discriminatory representation of people from the African continent in the communications of NGOs. After a major furore, Britain’s Comic Relief had to close down their very successful fundraising campaigns which entailed celebrities appealing for donations while visiting projects in Africa. In the study entitled “Time to Decolonise Aid” published in May 2021, the authors of peacedirect do not mince their words: “Many current practices and attitudes in the aid system mirror and are derived from the colonial era, which most organisations and donors in the Global North are still reluctant to acknowledge. Certain modern-day practices and norms reinforce colonial dynamics and beliefs such as the ‘White saviour’ ideology visible in fundraising and communications imagery used by INGOs.”
Stereotypes undermine development cooperation
Stereotypical communication rooted in colonial ways of thinking – that is a damning charge levelled at the practices of development agencies. It raises critical questions about the fundamental ethical stance of organisations while also noting an inconsistency with the civil society aim of eliminating power imbalances.
With the Manifesto for Responsible Communication on International Cooperation approved in Berne on 10 September 2020, the members and partners of Alliance Sud sent a binding message. In the introduction to the manifesto the authors state self-critically: “People of the global South are often portrayed as objects and recipients of aid or support while, contrastingly, development organizations and their personnel are portrayed as active subjects and experts. (...) This often reproduces stereotypes. Paternalistic images of development convey the idea of developed countries showing underdeveloped countries how to do things properly.”
Capturing and representing entire continents and their people in images of poverty and dependency is discriminatory. It is degrading if the end effect is to lock people into the role of grateful aid recipients. It is high time for development organisations to jettison a fundraising topos carefully cultivated for many years and highly successful. The ever greater significance of communication in our global society requires that development organisations reflect even more deeply on what their own communication is achieving and its potential for helping to bring about global justice.
Communication is a programme
Climate crisis, migration, humanitarian assistance: Communication by development organisations in the information society of the 21st century is more than just corporate communication and fundraising. Its narratives actively help to shape societal change and inspire influential mindsets. It is up to development organisations to ensure that their communication is aligned with the real-life situations, philosophies and aspirations of the people being portrayed. It therefore behoves not just the operational units but also the communications departments of these organisations to embark on a theory of change process, from which to develop a results-based approach to their work on the basis of a self-reflective situation analysis. This is necessary in order to achieve the impact being pursued by the organisation as a whole.
To do justice to the complexity of the problem areas – encompassing those being portrayed as well as the recipients of the communication – these processes must take on board local players with their diversity of viewpoints, know-how and rights. Gone are the days when development agencies could take the liberty of communicating above the heads of the people who are at the centre of their civil society commitment.
Jörg Arnold is a sociologist and was head of Fundraising and Marketing at Caritas Switzerland from 2002 to 2018. He is a co-founder of Fairpicture (fairpicture.org).