‘Tis the season for serious guilt

It’s this time of year that our TVs are overrun with unmissable deals on three piece suites and all inclusive holidays. Most of it is pretty annoying, but pretty easy to tune out of.

Less easy to tune out of is the barrage of fundraising appeals for Africa and this year they seem to be more shocking, emotive and forceful than ever before.

There’s no doubt that life for millions of Africans is very hard or very short. Around 300 million Africans live in poverty and the 28 bottom nations in the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2011 are all African. One in eight children in Sub-Saharan Africa die before their fifth birthday.

There’s also no doubt that the work of organisations like Save the Children in Africa is intelligent and often extraordinary, mixing short-term relief of disasters like the current East African famine, with longer term solutions, lead by local people.

But are their TV appeals intelligent?

They are certainly a desperate response to desperate levels of suffering and is motivated by a passionate belief that we have to do everything we can to relieve this suffering.

But they aren’t intelligent, they’re simplistic. This bombardment of Christmas appeals from organisations like Save the Children, WaterAid and ActionAid – the vast majority of which is not connected to specific disaster relief – presents Africa as a permanently starving, disease ridden continent that needs our help to survive.

During some recent work we did in schools in East London, we talked to 100s of children about how they saw charity and particular causes. When asked about what they saw when they looked at Africa, every response, exclusively, reported visions of poverty, suffering, disease and famine. The odd reference to members of Girls Aloud or Chris Moyles cradling dying African babies was in there too.

Do we get to move on from this destructive, misleading vision of Africa soon?

The real African story has evolved and continues to. The Guardian’s recent report on Africa’s growing middle-class helped tell this story as did The Economists’ “The Hopeful Continent” feature.

The collateral effect of the endless wall of images of helpless Africans, from charity brands that has our trust and respect, is the popular perception that Africa is a place that we give to and feel sorry for, not buy from and invest in. Every economist (and probably most people at organisations like Save the Children) will tell you that it is balanced, well distributed economic growth, not charity, that will lift hundreds of millions more African’s out of poverty and into the middle-classes.

There is always vital work to do to relieve the suffering that disasters bring, all around the world, but this work doesn’t need to come with one sided social marketing that has such damaging, long-term side effects.

8 thoughts on “‘Tis the season for serious guilt

  1. It’s a tricky issue. Society is so bombarded with images of horror and suffering in the media that we’ve become desensitised. It seems charities are forced to use ever more graphic depictions of poverty to drive the public to give. It works, and for me, that’s ok as long as it’s coupled with the rest of the story about how public donations are making a difference. Without that, it just feels like an endless problem with no solution in site, which is so often far from the truth.

    http://www.seeafricadifferently.com is attempting to change people’s perceptions of Africa – focusing on good news stories from the continent. I hope to see sites like http://www.kiva.org increasingly engage a new generation of givers in the UK to be part of a positive solution to poverty rather than only guilt-giving to short term disaster relieve appeals.

  2. The ideas of seeing Africa differently have been around for a while now. This article is dated and, ironically, simplifies the issue it talks about. The differences between disaster emergency and sustainable do1.wawwd.infoelopment are complex. And you seem to be getting emergency appeals mixed up with public education and the like. Emergency appeals are exactly that – appealing for donations in an emergency. There IS a disaster and impossible to portray that as positive. The NGOs you talk of DO also advertise the sustainable do1.wawwd.infoelopment work they do through their ‘social marketing’ on their websites and social media feeds, AND there is a whole wealth of information on positive do1.wawwd.infoelopment in Africa in all the right places if you just look. Both forms of communicating the issues serve a purpose. You might have asked children for their image on Africa, but it is naive to think that adults are not better informed these days and your insight in this article is lacking years of research into donor and direct marketing for international do1.wawwd.infoelopment issues and on what makes the most people give generously and immediately in an emergency, researched by experts and peers in the field. Your writing comes across as patronising to other professions, so I would mind that in future when writing on something outside your own professional area. If you’re really serious about writing blogs on international do1.wawwd.infoelopment then take a look at ODI, Business Fights Poverty, Duncan Green, Centre for Global Development etc there is a wealth of accurate, well written and informative blogs on there with a serious grasp of the issues.

  3. Nancy, I’m not sure that you can dismiss these arguments as dated. I agree that this could be much more thorough, but your response feels a bit knee jerk.

    And you seem to have missed the point about how this kind of advertising fuels outdated popular understanding of Africa. Your point about adult misunderstandings seems to agree with that point? Wouldn’t you rather that public campaigns increased understanding of the issues you’re working on?

    Its a very live debate and one that we should all be having.

    There was a similar article (more thorough) in the Spectator:


    One particularly interesting section:

    “Aid workers know they are not saints; privately, they admit the shortcomings of their trade. They accept that billions have been wasted on failed ideas and flawed projects, and acknowledge that huge sums still go missing or are misspent. These concerns find increasingly strong echoes across the do1.wawwd.infoeloping world. A swelling chorus of economists, politicians and pundits argue that western aid policies are patronising, destructive and outdated.”

  4. Thanks for the comments and the debate is very welcome.

    Nancy, I’m not an expert in this field, you’re absolutely right and a lot of commentary in this area, including mine, needs more rigour.

    But I think the area that we do understand well and can comment on is the effect of certain types of messages on public perceptions and behaviours.

    It is clear, when we do examine this effect, that the messages are not leading towards a better understanding of the picture that you illustrate or more progressive behaviours.

    I tried to make the distinction between emergency aid and do1.wawwd.infoelopment, but that wasn’t clear, I agree, and this is a key distinction.

    There’s no doubt that disasters need emotive appeals and for the public to give “immediately and generously”, as you say. But most of the emotive Christmas appeals this year, and many others, are NOT connected to emergency relief, but to the general, ongoing levels of African need.

    That this distinction has blurred into one – and that, despite trying, I didn’t extricate the two clearly – is, at least in part, a symptom of the way that this work is articulated through mass public campaigns – not just through more subtle messages that come through social media feeds to members and supporters.

    Do people understand the distinction that you highlight? If not, should we be doing more to talk about the two types of intervention differently? Wouldn’t it make your job easier if there were higher levels of understanding of this distinction?

  5. Carl – Nice quote! I didn’t say the argument was dated, I said the article was. I don’t believe I said anything general about adult misunderstandings… I already cited some public facing sources that have a wealth of positive and well-informed information on sustainable do1.wawwd.infoelopment and Africa, a large degree of which is written by INGOs campaigning for increased understanding of all the issues. So I guess I’ll raise you one knee-jerk reaction Carl!

    I don’t work in the field myself, although it is interesting and funny that you both think that someone who knows about sustainable work of INGOs MUST work in the field!

    I understand issues of sustainable do1.wawwd.infoelopment work because INGOs DO ALSO TELL the ‘real African story’, as Nick puts it, and through INGO public campaigns I have learnt about the positive in Africa as well as the need for emergency relief. And the fact that emergency relief is still needed is not an ‘outdated’ idea but still one side of the African story.

    Nick’s view that INGOs’ public messaging is ‘one sided’ is completely wrong, and it is really irresponsible and damaging of him to be promoting this flawed view.

    There are so many public campaign channels other than adverts you know, even though not all adverts are showing emergencies – for example the Wateraid advert just to name one. And newspapers, like the Guardian Nick sited earlier, often acquire do1.wawwd.infoelopment stories from INGOs placing stories through press releases and inviting journalists to visit projects to spread the word about their sustainable do1.wawwd.infoelopment work and the positive change this brings through enabling Africans to lift themselves out of poverty. Talking of ‘the real African story’ there is also seeafricadifferently.com that campaigns to showcase the under-reported progress from Africa – all supported by various NGOs! This article adds some more dimensions to the issue including media responsibility http://www.guardian.co.uk/journalismcompetition/why-does-it-take-images-of-starving-children-for-the-world-to-act.

    Nick’s article has not taken into account any other nuances or factors in this issue or that INGOs differ from each other in many ways or that other agents are involved, or that there are many sides to the African story not just one positive or one negative. Instead he is blanket criticising a whole sector, and this makes for a poor argument as an argument like that just doesn’t stand up. I don’t know, maybe this blog was written on the bus in haste, but it just reads like an episode of Brass Eye “So we asked some children….”! Anyhow, good luck!!

  6. I’m a little confused with this blog. The WaterAid advert is not an emergency – it talks about water for life and shows wells being built – so this is certainly not an emergency scene of tankards of water being handed out. I guess the Save advert is more of an emergency theme as its about malnutrition, so the imagery is of a starving child and I agree it’s quite upsetting – but it is showing ‘a reality’. The truth is people respond to a need and not happy scenes. Some INGOs’ have gone down this route and decreased their public fundraising income dramatically, which obviously impacts on the work they are able to do to help people.

    There are many facets to the work of INGOs, emergencies and dealing with malnutrition are one aspect of the work and in order to fundraise these scenes do provoke action and are showing the truth in terms of that particular situation. INGOs are also working to deliver sustainable initiatives – Lendwithcare is an example that has also been promoted substantially in the public eyes and also the advocacy work of charities whereby decision makers are lobbied to make an even bigger difference is another. The public do engage with such areas of INGO work.

    Nick you say “But most of the emotive Christmas appeals this year, and many others, are NOT connected to emergency relief, but to the general, ongoing levels of African need.”
    I’m not sure what you mean by this but it definitely gives the wrong impression. The money that adverts raise is spent on what is being advertised. INGOs must be careful with and accountable for the money they raise from the public and it is a shame when public confusion created from statements like this one above damages this understanding. All adverts have to go through clearcast http://www.clearcast.co.uk/submissions.html When the advert is submitted for approval, all facts within the advert have to be substantiated – so clear evidence of each statement and the advert is raising money for what it states. For example if you say that you’ve helped 14 million people in the last 2 years – you have to show this through reports from the Programme Team, if you say £2 a month can pay for cement and bricks, then you have to show the cost of cement and bricks in a country etc. they won’t let an advert through without the substantiation. Hope this helps clarify Nick.

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