Last week I attended a book launch – not something I’ve ever done before, but this one seemed worth going to. “Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs”, a new book by Irene Bruna Seu, Reader in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck College, London, and Shani Orgad, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, was a title bound to get my attention.
Speaking directly to my day job – helping grassroots supporters of international development share their passion with the public in order to make positive changes in the world – this was an event I had to go to. But with so much data already out there, and with so many reports on public engagement produced over the last few years, I wondered just what yet another set of speakers, another discussion, and another book could usefully add.
A top-drawer panel – Kirsty McNeill from Save the Children, Nicola Peckett from the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), Glen Tarman from Care International, and Paul Vanags from Oxfam, plus the book’s authors – strongly endorsed the view that the British public remains tremendously generous when disasters strike, and that human suffering touches us as deeply as ever. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot for NGOs to think about.
Here are my top 6 takeaways from the discussions about how NGOs engage with the public in humanitarian crises and beyond.
1. Caring definitely isn’t in crisis, but…
Despite what some people think, “compassion fatigue” isn’t reducing public support for humanitarian responses, which remains very strong. Some recent DEC appeals have exceeded expectations. Responding to complex, politically driven and, for most people, obscure crises, the East Africa and Yemen appeals gained widespread public support. Faced with stories of human misery and an immediate chance to help, “the heart wins, and people give”. Media attacks on international aid, especially prevalent this year, don’t seem to have damped charitable giving, but there is a “looming crisis of trust” which could hurt public support in the longer-term. NGOs must help the public engage positively to help those in need, and to feel good about their role and act together to counter negative narratives of wasted aid and insularity.
2. It’s all about the money…oh no it’s not!
The challenge of finding meaningful ways to help others who are suffering in distant lands is a perennial one. One the one hand, NGOs would like the public to understand more about the causes of insecurity and suffering, and go beyond giving one-off donations; yet it’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to respond to an emotional appeal and then move on to deal with their own daily concerns, trusting NGOs to spend the money well. On the other hand, giving can be “an act of love” involving a lot of emotion, every bit as engaged as political activism, and sometimes more so (as clicktivism shows). Either way, there’s a need for NGOs to help people find appropriate ways (the metaphor of “journeys” crops up again and again) to engage a second and a third time, and learn more about the issues if they want to. Is giving money the only outlet for people’s empathy? No, but it mustn’t be looked down on. And of course there’s the critical issue of how ‘beneficiaries’ are depicted: there’s now solid evidence that showing distressing scenes of human misery can reduce people’s sense of agency and make them disconnect. The tactic may not even raise more money in the short term anyway.
3. Communities are galvanising – but NGOs aren’t
Back in 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign showed that you can build a big public movement and get real change if the politics are right. Collectively, we helped get $50 billion of debt written off, which fed into real gains for access to health and education in developing countries, and the lives of millions of people improved as a result. But it’s unlikely we’d want to replicate such a big brand-led movement today, as the world has moved on. Recent mobilisations channelling public concern have been far more organic; not leaderless or disorganised, but working perfectly well without a top-down structure. Successful movements allow people to do their own thing, based on a central idea or goal that fires their imagination, but doesn’t tell them what to do. Look at the way people came together around the Manchester terrorist attack, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, or the Refugees Welcome movement. Only in the latter have NGOs played any kind of a role, and it seems that we haven’t yet properly woken up to the reality of how people organise around causes today.
4. Humans connect – but digital doesn’t (so far, at least)
While digital communications play a strong part in helping people connect with causes (especially social media, where there are no barriers to entry), traditional community organising is once more coming to the fore. The things people actually want to do – marching, demonstrating, celebrating, or whatever – happen in their local communities, in the company of like-minded people. The idea that you can get people to act online seems more and more like a marketing idea that doesn’t meet people’s emotional need to connect and act. Is the digital marketing chapter coming to a close? You’ve got to wonder.
5. Find ways to engage people emotionally
Humans care about each other – in their own lives, and also when exposed to distant communities in crisis. Emotionally and in reality, we see people reacting in similar ways in both cases. International NGOs are uniquely placed to connect people to the issues we work on, but we don’t tend to communicate in ways which aim primarily to connect people emotionally. We are still far too fond of demonstrating truths through statistics, rather than telling inspiring stories of hope and change. And forget ‘myth busting’ – it’s not helpful to show people they are wrong and then tell them what to think. We should instead tell people stories of their successes, holding up a mirror up to the public to show them where they have been powerful agents of progress.
6. So, what’s the plan?
There’s a feeling that NGOs are faced with “a crisis of objectives, not of caring”. What should we be asking charity fundraisers and communicators to do? ‘Just’ raise money, or raise money and build long-public awareness and concern? This is a top level strategic question which needs answering very soon, at the most senior levels. The book’s authors spoke of “cognitive blocks to action”. NGOs have for years been giving out unreal and simplistic expectations of what overseas aid is and achieves – with the best of intentions – and have inadvertently reinforced notions of victimhood and dependency. How long can this carry on? Such fundraising practices may not yet be an immediate problem in terms of how much people give to charity, but in terms of movement building, we should definitely be concerned. Income is easy to measure, but the desire to engage isn't. NGOs must find ways to do this.
NGOs can be amazing connectors, inspiring people to be the best they can be, expressing our common humanity and making the world a better place. We are needed as much as ever, and few other actors in society can do this – but we do need to change ourselves. The next few years could be a very exciting era for the international development sector, and if a ‘Global Britain’ is going to mean anything substantial, NGOs have a big role to play.
Check out this postcast about Caring in Crisis? with author Dr Bruna Seu, and Glen Tarman, Head of Global Advocacy at CARE International, who discuss some of the issues raised by the book (26min 8s).