Give £10 RIGHT NOW

Sentenced to Death  Screen shot 2013-04-22 at 11.29.14

On the left is a Save the Children poster published in 1981, to widespread condemnation. On the right, an advert that appeared online last week alongside a rolling deluge of other similar advertisements and raised no major objections. One is designed to shock, the other to demand, and both invoke a sense of shame in you, the passive reader. But armed with moral superiority and the certainty that they have the answer – these adverts offer problem and solution in one neat package.

Peddling in the trade of morality and saving lives, it seems to me supremely important for aid agencies to properly assess how they represent the people they aim to serve. For what is the point in raising money to secure the humanity of those affected by crisis, if in the process, those same people become reduced to helpless victims and empty stereotypes, stripped of the very humanity their ‘saviours’ wish to restore?

This is an old argument. Following the horror of the Ethiopian famine, there was collective agreement over the need for more sensitive and dignified portrayal of disaster ‘victims’. Amongst other initiatives, in 1994 the IFRC stipulated in its Code of Conduct that: In our information, publicity and advertizing activities, we shall recognize disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects. Since then, the humanitarian sector has grown rapidly and chaotically into a multi million dollar industry, with massive interventions across large parts of the globe and a powerful public profile. As technology has evolved, so agencies have become increasingly media savvy, with dedicated media/comms departments and sophisticated marketing techniques capable of bringing in even larger sums of money.

I am an aid worker, and despite spending a lot of time angry, frustrated and generally cynical, I remain fiercely wedded to the idea that trying to help people in war or disaster is an essentially good and necessary thing. So I suppose I should feel proud of the scale of influence that agencies now manage to wield through modern media. Yet the hyperbole, disturbing imagery and pervading sense of hubris, cloud any real feelings of achievement and often make me cringe. What is presented by agencies to the general public seems completely removed from the realities of actually providing humanitarian assistance, and the imagery used is only getting worse.

The ends-justifies-means argument would point the money raised and numbers saved as a result. Yet this position, standing opposed to ethical purism, is a tired dichotomy and completely misses the complex reality of providing assistance in a conflict environment. Having money doesn’t mean aid will actually be delivered effectively and appropriately. And as part of a sector that is trying so desperately to professionalise, surely we should have grown more sophisticated in our relations with the giving public, beyond ordering them to ‘Give £10: Right Now’?

rough notes: Give £10 RIGHT NOW

These rough notes show email discussions on the topic between the mysterious A, D, and L – have a read through and add your thoughts in the comments on the blog above!


A: A couple of points that I would make. I think the distinction between the 1981 and current advertising actually shows that we have improved. The skeletal hand, the much larger, white hand protecting the starving kid from all harm in 1981 – these are fairly obvious paternalistic/borderline racist images. The modern image is just a picture of a cute child – not really in the same league.

D: Ha yeh! The trouble is there have been some really awful adverts out recently, with 1980s style imagery but I just can’t find them on Google (stupidly haven’t copied them when they appear on my browser!). Plus the 1981 one is about the worst of the worst. I guess my point here is that we are slipping back into old ways, which are not helpful. I basically picked out the second advert because I found it extremely annoying.

A: I think I am more skeptical about how ‘sophisticated’ aid advertising can be. The three basic messages – which you object to – are: (1) give money, and (2) then we will use it to improve the life of someone (3) who is currently in trouble’. Call me unimaginative, but I don’t see how any of those three could possibly be absent from aid advertising. Obviously a ‘call to action’ (1) is necessary (or I wouldn’t give money.) If aid agencies aren’t claiming to improve things (2) (which I think they do, albeit with challenges) then why would you give money? And if the person isn’t currently in trouble (3), then why aid? I just can’t imagine how you can have any kind of advertising campaign without some of these implications – and so there is a limit to how far aid advertising can change.

D: My argument (which is not in this blog post but is in the next one) is that humanitarian advertising and use of the media presents a narrative of aid as a morality play: ‘innocent’ victim / villain / saviour – which is deeply inaccurate and has both ethical and operational implications by playing into unhelpful stereotypes and reducing dignity of the person – and operationally, setting up impossible goals e.g. person x won’t necessarily be ‘saved’ as promised / global poverty won’t end / 9 times out of 10 xxx agency won’t save your life when in crisis, most simply because aid is a small drop in a very large ocean. There is an interesting picture from Syria of a group of people holding up a banner across burnt out buildings saying ‘This is your humanitarian aid?’ or something similar. Hubris, basically. Which operationally can be a real problem as causes resentment and frustration and can also lead to an emphasis of ‘media friendly’ programming.

When I say sophisticated, I mean not treating your audience like idiots. Oxfam did actually run a more interesting campaign around world food prices, which was different to the typical ‘give money now for this dying child’. Not falling into the trap of simplification, exaggeration etc – not buying into media market logic (suffering as a commodity). I disagree with you and think it could be dramatically different but would also entail an entirely reformed way of relating to, and dealing with the public and their money i.e. not shoving donations into ‘unrestricted funds’ pots and doling out arbitrarily. Media is used well when for a specific, targeted campaign that offers clear, honest, and pragmatic solutions. And that yes, does offer change and a call for action, absolutely. The point is not what is done- but how.

A: For example, look at the MSF website – a picture of a Western (I think) women taking aid boxes off a helicopter, cute child, unhappy looking community, ‘Syrian Crisis Appeal – Help us with a donation today’. While there are some really objectionable aid adverts, I didn’t find the one you used particularly bad.

D: Agreed, as above. Blame Google. They do exist. I keep getting annoyed by them.

A: So I really do agree that aid agencies need to get better at educating the public about what aid is ‘really’ like – but a poster campaign isn’t the place to do this. I would focus the criticism on their surrounding narratives, discussions, etc, and failure to be transparent about where the money goes and how it’s used. But this isn’t a problem of advertising – perhaps it’s a problem of a reluctance to engage in deeper discussions, for fear of damaging the advertising. I guess I think the focus on which picture is on which advert is a bit of a distraction? Though I agree perhaps with the deeper point…

D: Yeh but problem with this is that these conversations tend to happen at a very technical level, are naval gazing and still totally alien to the public. This relates not only to advertising or use of the media- but also more broadly to agencies’ relationship with the public and their beneficiaries. Advertising, fundraising and campaigning are the first – and for many, the only point of contact, about what humanitarianism is and does. I’m not saying scrap fundraising, or even that in some cases the simple, urgent, shocking approach isn’t necessary – and I also don’t think it necessarily about ‘educating’ the public (who mostly don’t give a rat’s arse). But rather, that the whole presentation of aid as a kind of weird fairy-tale needs to change, as I don’t believe that serves anybody in the long run.

L: Interesting argument and one I could wade in to but kind of tend to learn more to agreeing with D. My gut problem is that you can’t use adverts both to inform and to fundraise as the two purposes end up contradicting one another. Perhaps the sector and international community more generally should look to alternative methods for informing and as you say think about whether we want to educate (do they care) or are we just against them telling white lies/misrepresenting the situation.