Author: Dr Eilish Dillon, MU Dept. of International Development.
Over the past few weeks of COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve seen more international development NGO (IDNGO) fundraising ads on TV with sick or vulnerable children in them than I have in many years. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been watching more television or maybe IDNGO communication standards are dropping. In the face of lost income, funding constraints and the growing challenges presented by COVID-19 around the world, how can organisations resist the temptation to use stereotyped, emotive images and to present themselves as saviours?
Concerns about how development has been communicated – among aid and development organisations, in mainstream media, in development policy and on social media – have been around for a long time. Influenced by analysis of colonial representations and development discourses, these have included analysis of media representations and of ‘poverty pornography’ as well as critique of the use of labels in development policy. Many projects and campaigns have also been designed to challenge stereotyped communications and to present alternatives such as Africa for Norway, Everyday Projects and No White Saviours.
Efforts to Improve NGO Development Communications
These have coincided with efforts on the part of international development NGOs to encourage better practice in their communications. This has included the DóchasCode of Conduct on Images and Messages (hereafter ‘the Dóchas Code’), developed in Ireland in 2007 from an earlier EU-wide code. This code was designed to rid organisations’ communications of stereotypes and simplifications and to ensure more dignity and respect for those represented in global development contexts. Through the Dóchas Code, Dóchas, the Irish Association of non-governmental development organisations, has been to the forefront of advancing thinking and practice on ethical communications among IDNGO networks in Europe.
The Dóchas Code promotes communication based on three key values: respect for the dignity of the people concerned; belief in the equality of all people; and acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice. These are very powerful values to base communications on but many consider them to be aspirational and vague. As such, they may be interpreted in too many different ways to ensure meaningful and consistent compliance. Though more prescribed, the guiding principles of good practice set out in the Dóchas Code have also been regarded as presenting similar problems for adherence. Using just two principles as examples, it’s worth considering what might be involved, in practice, in striving to “truthfully represent any image or depicted situation both in its immediate and wider context so as to improve public understanding of the realities and complexities of development” or to “avoid images and messages that potentially stereotype, sensationalise, or discriminate against people, situations or places”.
The challenge has been in translating these values and principles into practice, especially in a way that is not just based on ‘tick box’, governance-led compliance but on deeper critical understanding of why ethical communication is so important in the first place. An effort to address these practicalities was developed through the publication of an Illustrative Guide in 2014. Research published in 2014 by Caroline Murphy found that Irish IDNGOs tended to frame development in terms of charity, help for ‘the poor’ and poverty, with an emphasis on images of ‘poster children’ and women, with transaction the dominant call to action. This, she highlighted, leads to a situation where an “‘us and them’ mentality is reinforced … creating the impression that the developing world lacks agency and is in a constant state of doom and gloom, despite major progress in development initiatives”. There has been little substantial research on development communications in Ireland since.
Bond, the UK network of international development organisations, has also very recently developed its own ‘ethical guidelines for the collection and use of content (images and stories)’. Entitled ‘Putting the people in the pictures first’, it locates itself in the context of the Dóchas Code and also sets out a range of principles and guidelines on aspects of communication such as informed consent, accuracy and context, and avoiding stereotypes. It’s a strong document in its focus on ethical practice, its acknowledgement of power relations involved in communicating development and in its emphasis on contributors as subjects, not objects, of communication. Standards around “human rights, safeguarding and accountability” are seen to apply to content gathering as much as portrayal and the commitment is made that “contributors’ wellbeing will take precedence over our communications requirements”.
Absent from both guideline documents, however, is a detailed analysis of why there is a need for a code of good practice in the first place. There is little scrutiny of current practice or of the effects of communications on racism, white supremacy or gender inequality, for example. While they offer insights for ethical practice, organisational culture, management and governance systems also play a significant role in whether or not the agreed values and principles of ethical communications are implemented.
Transforming Development Communications
Despite many efforts, there are still problems with development communications. IDNGOs still often portray themselves as saviours; people in the global South are still stereotyped as ‘victims’ or presented as ‘other’ or ‘different; and complex development contexts are regularly presented in simplistic terms.
It is clear that ethical practice in IDNGO communication requires more than just technical know-how or good governance mechanisms. My research in development education suggests that transformed attitudes and practices require deep understanding, active engagement and robust critical analysis.
Over the next year or so, I will be exploring many of these issues in New Foundations research funded by the Irish Research Council – ‘Communicating International Development for Public Engagement’. The research, which was designed in collaboration with Dóchas, will examine the images used and the messages being communicated by International development NGOs as well as the relevance of Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages. If you’d like to contribute to the research, please email me at: email@example.com