Fundraisers, trumpet your achievements

Extreme poverty is decreasing, but the public is not aware of that. Their image of progress in developing countries is much too gloomy and this undermines their confidence in development aid. NGO’s should therefore trumpet their achievements. Not only on their websites, but also on primetime TV.

How does the British public think about the achievements in the fight against global poverty? Unfortunately, they don’t think we’ve achieved very much. According to a Gapminder-survey, most British are convinced that the proportion of people in poverty has increased over the past 30 years. The fact that it has halved is known by only 10 percent. The British do not only misjudge the declining poverty trend, they also underestimate the literacy rates, life expectancy and declining birth rates in developing countries. By and large, their outlook of developing countries is one of disaster, doom and endless stagnation.

Is it wrong that people assess the poverty situation worse than it is? Not everyone thinks it is. After all, there still is much devastation in developing countries and people should be aware of that. Strong perceptions of misery might keep them motivated to donate to charity projects. If people have a positive picture of the progress in the world, they might think that further efforts are no longer needed.

That is an understandable but deceptive logic. Over the past years, researchers have dug deep into people’s minds to unravel why their engagement with global poverty is weakening. The most important reason is that people don’t believe that there is any improvement. ‘Nothing has changed‘, is the general feeling. “I was around when Live Aid shocked everybody and still the problem hasn’t been sorted”, says one respondent in an IPPR/ODI-survey. Researchers conclude that this perception of ‘no change’ erode the support base for development aid. They erode it even more than perceptions of corruption and wastage: people would tolerate that to a certain extent – if only aid would help to decrease poverty.

So here’s the paradox: the world is getting less poor – partly thanks to aid efforts. But people think it is getting poorer – despite all the aid efforts. They might still give to charities, for moral reasons or out of guilt, but not because they really believe that it helps.

Self-inspection

This should worry fundraisers of development NGO’s. And it should also lead to some critical self-inspection. Because why is it that people don’t know that poverty is declining? Among other things because NGO’s don’t tell them. They use their precious airtime and advertisement almost exclusively to scatter new messages about hunger, diseases and other devastating manifestations of poverty. In an analysis of 73 NGO-advertisements in the British mass media, I found that only 7 clearly displayed the results achieved. The vast majority made no reference to progressions at all. They stuck to showing pitiful people, often children, that need to be saved by ‘your’ donation. Don’t get me wrong: such messages can be extremely powerful to generate funds to relieve the misery. But they also reinforce people’s perception that the developing world is a basket case were nothing ever changes.

All well and good, but is it fair to blame NGO’s for the misperceptions of the general public? After all, it is primarily the task of the news media to report about positive developments and to give us a realistic view of the world. of life in the developing world. And besides that, NGO’s dó talk about what they have achieved. You will find plenty examples on their websites, in their newsletters and in their annual reports.

These observations are undeniably true. But think about it twice: what can we expect from the news media? Journalists are hardwired for disasters, conflicts and bad news in general. They may occasionally report about positive trends, such as economic growth in Africa, but these stories are dwarfed by negative ones about corrupted elections, escalating conflicts and yet another famine. In the same vain, what can we expect from the outreach of NGO-websites? How many people click through to the ‘results’ pages? Who takes the trouble to download the annual report? I bet that the number of people that see an advertisement with a malnourished child is much greater than the number of people that see how aid efforts have ended his misery.

Rethink your budget

How can we tackle this problem? An easy solution does not exist. However, there are a few steps that fundraising NGO’s could take. First, they should rethink their how they spend their advertisement-pounds. They could, for example, allocate part of that budget to explicitly informing the public about progress and achievements. For example, by showing the public how communities benefitted from aid projects, without calling for new donations. Second, they could link these messages to wider trends of declining poverty. For example, by not only telling the public that the project helped to prevent malaria, but also that global malaria deaths dropped 60 percent over the past 15 years. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they should communicate such messages through the very same media that they use for their appeals. If a plea for food aid reached millions of viewers, the very same viewers, and not just the ones that donated, should hear how the aid has helped.

Will that sway people’s perceptions about poverty in Africa and other parts of the South? Not immediately. Perceptions that have been built up over the years don’t change overnight. However, it might be a beginning to counterbalance the massive negativity that is currently being spread through the media. It might reduce people’s feelings of hopelessness when they think about developing countries. And it might help to restore their confidence that their donations really matter.

Mirjam Vossen is a PhD-researcher at the Radboud University of Nijmegen (The Netherlands) and the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium). She investigates the framing of global poverty in the public debate in Europe. Comments are welcome on www.mirjamvossen.com.

Further reading:

  • BOND (2014). Aid Attitude Tracker – Wave 1: Summary of results. my.bond.org.uk/resource/aat-quant-wave-1-resultsjan-2014
  • BOND. (2014). Change the Record. Exploring New Ways to Engage the UK Public in Tackling Global Poverty.
  • Gapminder (2013). Highlights from Ignorance survey in the UK.
  • IPPR/ODI (2012). Understanding public attitudes to aid and development.
  • Vossen (2016). Media frames and public perceptions of global poverty: is there a link? Journal of International Development (forthcoming)

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