This is the third post in our series of blogs that will be published in the lead up to the Dóchas Conference 2018 - Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development - which will take place on Thursday 3 May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.
We are asking leaders and innovators across civil society to respond to a set of questions around the theme of the conference, public engagement. Contributors are invited to respond to a number of questions or to focus on just one.
Today's contributor is Richard Darlington, Campaign Director for 25 leading NGOs at Bond UK. He is also Head of Strategic Communication at Well Told Story and Well Made Strategy, in Nairobi, Kenya. He works with African think tanks, research institutes and data-driven advocacy groups to build their strategic communications capacity. Follow him on Twitter: @RDarlo.
Here is his response:
Is the populist narrative of “charity begins at home” gaining ground in Europe? What should we be doing to counter it?
As a global community, we are halfway to ending extreme poverty, although the second half will almost certainly be harder than the first. Ireland too, is about halfway there. Halfway to investing 0.7% of GNI through Overseas Development Assistance. The UK got there five years ago but the commitment to get there was secured more than a decade before.
For campaigners, while we might be halfway there, and we need all the half-time team talks we can get, there is no final whistle.
Today, after more than a decade of austerity, the idea that “charity begins at home” is so pervasive, that a UK think tank recently revealed that the phrase came up in every single focus group they conducted (as part of a nationwide research programme), even though they didn’t ask a single question about aid or international development.
Five years ago, the most common frame used by the UK public was ‘give a man a fish’. The question that came to mind when researchers asked about aid and development was “does it work?”. Researchers advised those devising the ‘IF’ campaign that the public supported ‘development’ but didn’t support ‘aid’.
Today, whether it really works is so contested that the certainty of problems at home (homeless people we can see on our streets, appointments we can’t get at our own doctors’ surgeries and cuts to services we use ourselves) makes “charity begins at home” a comfortable and intuitive response to that uncertainty.
Because we are talking to the public about helping ‘people you will never meet’ in countries ‘you will never go to’, a level of uncertainty is hard-wired into our proposition. But was there ever a ’golden age’? I think not.
Make Poverty History, the campaign that hinged on the ‘golden moment’ of the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005, was the high-water mark for UK development campaigners. Nine million people in the UK took action, three billion around the world watched the Live 8 concert and the Make Poverty History brand itself recorded a 96% recognition rate among the British public just six months after it was launched. We have a lot to thank the MPH generation for but perhaps even more to learn from what they didn’t do.
Behind the scenes, Make Poverty History was, by all accounts, a battle between those that wanted to keep it simple and those that wanted to make it real. But reality is, above all, complicated. While mass public engagement requires a level of simplicity, what comes with simplicity is a level of superficiality. Those involved in the MPH battle were so exhausted by the debate that it was another eight years before they tried to collaborate again.
And those debates continue to this day. Earlier this year, Comic Relief was criticised for using ‘white savior imagery’, despite raising over £50m. They are given an award for ‘poverty porn’, having created a film set in Liberia watched online by eight and a half million people, and countless more on TV.
In this, our social media age, academics publish books with click bait titles such as “Why We Lie About Aid”. That book starts with recounting the 2012 scandal when Irish Aid suspended their assistance programme in Uganda. It says that the most significant consequence was to expose the public to “very important but very complex questions about the nature of development assistance.” Although it can be counter-productive to hide the complexity, there is no evidence that public support increases when the public get a more complex message broadcast at them.
In fact, the opposite is the case, with evidence suggesting that the only thing more off putting than ‘development speak’ is the vested interest of the NGO CEO or (and hold tight for this one) the beneficiary. While we might like to think that the ‘beneficiary voice’ is empowering and authentic, research suggests that front line workers in relatable professions (like nurses, teachers, doctors, midwives, firefighters and so on) are the most effective message carriers because the public consider them to know what’s really happening “over there”.
What academics call the “pantomime of extremes” is probably here to stay: “feeding starving children or fattening corrupt dictators”. But today’s battles will be asymmetrical. The solution to commercially driven right of centre press coverage cannot be distributed through those same newspapers. Although the windows of digital engagement are probably to be found on adjacent pages.
The key thing to remember, if you are a protagonist in this particular pantomime, is that there is no final curtain. Jubilee 2000 campaigners passed the baton to the Make Poverty History generation, but to this generation falls the task of defending the development enabled by the UK’s 0.7%, because we are only halfway to securing their legacy and to making poverty history. Perhaps Ireland might be halfway in the battle for 0.7%, but be under no illusion, the war has only just begun.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dóchas.
Catch up on the Dóchas Conference 2018 blog series:
"Practice what you preach" - Dr. Burkhard Gnärig, Founder and Executive Director, International Civil Society Centre in Berlin
"Collectively we need to become better storytellers" - Bobby McCormack, Co-founder and Director, Development Perspectives
"Getting to 0.7% is only half the battle" - Richard Darlington, Campaign Director for 25 leading NGOs at Bond UK
"Before we can think about changing our narratives, we need to understand them" - Eilish Dillon, Coordinator of the MA in International Development at the Kimmage Development Studies Centre
The Dóchas Conference 2018 - Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development - will take place on 3 May, from 10.30am - 5.30pm, in the Croke Park Conference Centre. Speakers include Ruairí De Búrca, Director General, Irish Aid; Heba Aly, Director, IRIN; Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO, CIVICUS; Judith Greenwood, Executive Director of CHS Alliance; and Rafeef Ziadah, Lecturer, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS University of London, spoken word artist and human rights activist. Our MC for the day will be journalist and broadcaster Dil Wickremasinghe.