Writing about Haiti J. at Tales from the Hood argues that:
1) We [the aid community] have to update our public relations and public education paradigms to reflect the reality that our constituent base does not understand what we do. The day is coming when we will all have to post un-varnished evaluation and lessons-learned documents on our agency websites for public scrutiny, if not as a legal requirement, then certainly as a requirement for staying in the public’s good graces.
We’ve spent the past 30 years harvesting the low-hanging fruit that came from feeding our donors, the media, ourselves a cut-and-dried, simplistic, happy-ending story about what aid is, how aid works, what the issues are, and what aid is capable of accomplishing. And it’s all coming back to haunt us in the wake of Haiti. We’ve let our ordinary citizen supporters believe that we can and will solve any problem – from rubble-removal to general world poverty. But one year later, it is painfully obvious in Haiti at least that we can’t. And they’re mad.
The Aid Industry has a huge public relations problem on it’s hands right now. And more traditional NGO public relations tactics will only make it worse. It is time to start meaningfully coming clean. We’d better get busy and educate the public about the realities of aid work now, while they still sort of think well of us (and by the way, I use the term “aid” very generically in this case – development, long-term poverty-reduction, community development, international development, disaster response… all included). We need to come to terms with the honesty/transparency issue. We’d better provide alternatives to the glossy, over-produced, happy propaganda that has characterized our communications for the past decades.
Thinking about it, I disagree with J. on one point. While it’s true that Haiti presents a PR problem for the ‘Aid Industry’ at present, in the medium to long-run I doubt it really represents a substantive threat to the world of aid as we know it. Almost every major humanitarian response effort in the last 3 or 4 decades has been coupled with similar media narratives about the failings of aid. Maybe they’re more intense in the US right now because of the proximity thing, but I don’t think they differ by an order of magnitude. And the thing is that, in the past, given a year or two, the failures and fuck-ups end up faded, if not wholly forgotten, in the minds of the voters and donation givers. Meaning that, come the next disaster, to the usual degree, the humanitarian impulse will win out over the lingering doubts and aid will again flow.
Yet J.’s still nailed a critical issue. If possible, it’s essential the aid community moves beyond ‘aid PR’ and actually has an honest discussion the public about the realities of aid work (these realities being: aid can’t solve all of the world’s problems; development is complicated and giving aid successfully is difficult; the aid community is human and stuff-ups are inevitable; everyone’s still learning; and aid can work when it’s given well). If such a conversation succeeded, ultimately support for aid would increase I think, and the scope for improving aid would increase too. As J. says:
We sort this one out, and we eventually address the (mostly) idiotic media coverage of disasters like Haiti, we sideline the celebrities-playing-aid-workers at the outset, and innumerable other annoyances and real obstacles that go along with those ordinary citizens not getting it. More importantly and most valuable of all, we would gain knowledgeable supporters, advocates, champions and donors – and those are by far the best kind.
Would it succeed though? To be honest, I’m not sure. It would be nice if the publics of developed countries actually had the knowledge base and attention spans sufficient to maintain a prolonged conversation on aid. But I’m not wholly confident that they do. Which is not to say I’m sure they don’t either. I just don’t know. More optimistically, I don’t think it has to be every voter or everyone who might ever respond to a disaster appeal. Rather, all that’s needed is a certain mass of concerned and interested individuals. This seems possible.
How could this happen? One possibility is Development Education. I used to work for an NGO that did this sort of work and I think it helps somewhat over time. But above and beyond this, what about J.’s call for PR free public information?
Here’s how I imagine it might play out:
Amongst NGOs you need one NGO to take the leap. To publicly state that: ‘we’re going to keep working as usual on the ground, but we’re going to be honest with you about what succeeds and what doesn’t’. To market it’s openness. I think for some NGOs this might work. Particularly those that already have a niche amongst the somewhat well-informed. And if it worked for one, it might take off amongst others. Might, might, might. Might fail miserably but, on the other hand, might become an established norm in the world of aid.
It would be harder still for government aid agencies. Politicians are supremely sensitive to negative headlines. And opposition parties ever keen to generate them. And there are the Moyos and Easterlies of the world: people with ideological axes to grind. And who are likely to spin stories of failure to meet their own political narratives. None of this is likely to improve aid giving.
Which is a long way of saying I agree with J. on the need for a new type of transparency in the world of aid. And for the end of the good news machines. This is change we should strive for. But, just like everything else in development work, let’s not kid ourselves that it’s going to be easy.