When NGDOs say “engaging with the public”, they mean getting their money through marketing & advertisement?

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UK civil society recently engaged in remarkable reflections on roles of NGOs in a changing environment (e.g. the Smart CSOs initiative), and particularly on the question of how to engage with the public on issues which go beyond the people’s immediate self-interest. The Common Cause process led to a number of excellent, yet challenging reports, of which “Finding Frames – new ways to engage the UK public in global poverty” is particularly interesting for the development sector (and thus for questions related to global learning).

When I learned that a team of researchers from Polis, the journalism think tank at the LSE, started a reflection on “the relationship between audiences’ knowledge and caring and action” in cooperation with a number of big NGOs such as Plan UK, Oxfam and Save the Children, I was eager to read the first report of this three years research project.

Unfortunately, the findings are disappointing. Based on a round table discussion with high level communication, campaign and advocacy people (no development education people where present – sic!), the reports findings are framed in a logic of marketing, growth and competition. It does not touch on a number of key questions:

  • How can NGOs actually get out of a logic of competion and organisational self-interest in order to serve a common cause towards a systemic transformation of society – together with the UK citizens?
  • How can NGOs overcome the illusion that development aid will actually lead to development, and engage in a honest debate with a ever critical public about this?
  • How can the public actually engage and act – also and especially through NGOs – instead of only giving money or signing petitions?

The paper refers repeatedly to the Finding Frames report, which asks these difficult questions, but the reflection remains strongly in the frames of aid (“getting money to people on the ground” – what about political work in UK and partner countries?), needs and service delivery (what about a human rights based approach to development?) and, when it comes to the UK audience, getting their money through sophisticated marketing and advertisement strategies. It seems that empowerment is a nice buzz word for the “field work” but does not apply to the engagement with the UK citizens. A reflection on how the citizens (here and there!) can be integrated in a meaningful role in the work of the NGOs (including the strategic reflections and decision making processes) is completely missing.

Nevertheless, it is interesting reading, which shows that there’s still a lot of work to do within civil society organisations in order to overcome aid based, salvationist thinking, and to have a real debate on the transformative role (and duty!) of NGOs to work together with citizens to change things here and there.

You can download the report here:

Who Cares? Challenges and Opportunities in Communicating Distant Suffering.