Aid as a Morality Play

As I wrote about previously, there is a sense of déjà vu in the way the humanitarian sector uses the media, largely in terms of fundraising. But is there actually a creeping resurgence of ‘disaster porn’, or are aid agencies simply more numerous, and their media presence more strident? Hard to say without clear statistics, but it is fair to argue that the relationship between the Western news media and (Western) humanitarian aid has undergone significant change over the past couple of decades.

There is a natural symbiosis between the two institutions: both grapple with the grim realities of modern conflict, and both try to communicate this to a wider audience. At worst, both treat suffering as a casual commodity, and at best, both try to effect serious and meaningful change: by bearing witness, by providing life-saving assistance. And over the past few years, this symbiotic relationship appears to have deepened.  Aid organisations and media outlets are becoming increasingly dependent on one another, in ways that has serious implications on the ability of each to carry out their work properly and with integrity.

As media budgets contract, news organisations and freelance journalists are using, and at times relying on, humanitarians for field logistical support, story leads and information packages – delivered by professional agency communications/PR staff (with an institutional agenda). In ‘Getting into Bed with Charity’, Suzanne Franks delivers a searing critique of this dependence, claiming that ‘This symbiosis of media and aid agencies, while it might benefit both parties, may not always best serve the audience.’ Independence is as closely prized by journalists as by aid workers, and media is a powerful means of holding aid to account – a strong argument for keeping the two at least somewhat disentangled.

On the other hand, though humanitarian agencies have increased in number and influence, rather than carving out a distinct domain, I would argue that they have become further embroiled in the media’s terrain. Agency appeals, campaigns and branding are the public face of NGOs, and agencies are much more media savvy, with sophisticated comms teams, media teams, PR departments et al. Yet the relationship is defined largely according to market logic. With such a glut of agencies competing for public money and attention, branding is king. And to maximise coverage (and therefore funding / branding), agency comms teams have to pitch appeals or story ‘packages’ that are relevant to the varying styles/whims of a news outlet, fit in with audience consumption and squeeze between competing news stories.

It clearly makes practical sense to be responsive to market realities (who wants to read about another East African famine when there is a Royal Wedding on the cards?) – yet this also plays to the common weaknesses of both. The media in disaster zones roams quickly, searches for unique angles and prefers ‘events’ over situations. Urgency is also a better salesperson in soliciting donations: everyone wins. But this panders to the horrible tendency of representing complex situations through broad, simplistic brushstrokes, buzzwords and an ethnocentric lens. Humanitarian narratives about war and conflict are more often than not framed as a ‘morality play’, with agencies gladly taking on the mantle of ‘saviour’ (give us money please). Yet as pretty much every aid worker or journalist knows, famine isn’t just a result of drought, and conflicts aren’t simply bad vs. good guys (or even, Africans vs. Africans).

Understandably, as agencies have grown in size they have also become profoundly risk averse. The risk of compromising operations, compromising agency reputation or tarnishing donor money is unacceptable. And yet, oddly enough, through depoliticising and sterilising the humanitarian narratives in this way, NGOs may also find themselves moving away from the core principles. The humanitarian ‘morality play’ describes a world of innocents (starving babies), saviours (white aid workers) and villains (governments, military etc). Yet, as evidenced by every conflict, disaster and crisis – a person can be a fighter, mother, refugee and HIV patient all at the same time – the idea of ‘innocence’ is only really applicable to children (and which is why, as former MSF President Rony Brauman wryly remarked ‘the one thing that tyrants and aid workers have in common is their liking for being posed next to children’).

Humanitarianism is predicated on the ideal of neutrality – impossible, but crucial. This recognises that people in crisis, regardless of their political, religious or ethnic affiliation, have a right to assistance when in need. By labelling those receiving aid as ‘innocents’, we introduce the idea of ‘deserving’ into relief, which is completely antithetical to humanitarianism.

So – as David Rieff puts it: ‘The first and greatest humanitarian trap is this need to simplify, if not actually lie about, the way things are in the crisis zones, in order to make the story more morally and psychologically palatable- in short, to sugarcoat the horror of the world, which includes the horror of the cost of a good deed.’

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.