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How can we use Instagram more to support development?

I’m afraid this is a genuine question that I don’t know the answer to – so please help me answer it. How can we use Instagram more to help development?

Earlier today I met with a youth group in Alexandra, Johannesburg to talk to them about the use of images in NGO fundraising campaigns. After the discussion I noticed several of them get their mobile phones out to check for “updates”. I had already taken up a lot of their time, so quickly asked if they used social media on their phones. “Of course we do” one of them said. I asked which social media channels they use the most and it was a unanimous response of “Instagram”. What about Facebook and Twitter I asked, “We use Facebook, but not Twitter, Instagram is much better.” So I asked if they thought Instagram could be used for development. “Definitely – Instagram is a great way of finding out what’s going on in the world and for learning about different things – it’s so easy to share information with friends too.”

I was so intrigued by this response, but really didn’t want to take up more of their time. I’ve seen several semi-successful campaigns by NGOs, one of which I mention in my blog post earlier today. I’ve also written about Instagram accounts such as Barbie Saviour and Everyday Africa, but I’d love to learn more about grass roots initiatives on Instagram that have been successful for development.

Please share any examples you have found.

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New Research seeks to improve imagery in NGO campaigns

Critics have often accused NGOs of using pity in their fundraising campaigns. Negative images used in campaigns to evoke empathy and guilt have been labelled as poverty porn, others accuse positive campaigns of stereotyping, oversimplification of stories or failing to highlight structural causes. Sometimes it seems as though NGOs can’t do right for want of trying.

With NGOs under constant scrutiny from organisations such as Radi-Aid, which seeks to minimise stereotyping in fundraising adverts there has been a gradual shift in narratives in recent years. Save the Children have recently released an informative piece of research called The People in the Pictures. This research is the first time that “contributors” or the protagonists of NGO imagery and stories have been asked about the process of image making and their portrayal in the communications.


The research included 39 interviews and 21 focus groups across four countries: UK, Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger. In total there were 202 research participants. Findings are grouped into three main areas: motivations, process and portrayal.

Informed Consent

I found the section on informed consent particularly interesting, especially that contributors in Jordan, Bangladesh and Niger “only had a vague idea of the purpose” of the photo shoot. Having commissioned photography for a large part of my career I sympathise to some extent, but it worries me that large INGOs who have established country offices and local partners are still unable to successfully implement informed consent.

Is it a language / translation issue or are the people in the pictures simply unaware of the myriad of communications that INGOs are using the imagery for? I was pleased to see in the recommendations that Save the Children are reviewing their guidelines. Surely a simple solution is for photographers to take examples of previous campaigns and for these to be translated so local communities can understand how their images might be used?

The reasons for not contributing were social stigma, fear of reprisal, the permanence of the portrayal, lack of confidence or self-esteem and lack of direct benefits. All of these reasons confirm why stringent implementation of informed consent is fundamental.

Local Photographers

Some of the problems associated with informed consent include the photographer not speaking the language of the contributors and the lack of media literacy. The problems with hiring local photographers is a recurrent theme when I talk with communication professionals in the sector. I have recently encountered similar problems myself. This is one of the reasons I am an advocate of WaterAid’s Voices from the Field initiative which I have witnessed first-hand in both Madagascar and Nepal. I know that other NGOs have considered this approach to gathering images and case studies, so why hasn’t it happened? I can’t imagine that cost is the issue.

Participatory Photography

It is encouraging to see Save the Children have utilised participatory photography in their portfolio of image making. Participatory photography projects are becoming more popular and this is to be applauded, but how successful are these projects in reality? The dissemination of these images is not particularly widespread. Take for example the Inside Zataari project, which has just over 1600 followers on Instagram. In fairness it has received some very positive media coverage which is a different indicator of success. I do wonder which INGO will be brave enough to use images taken during a participatory photography project and use then in a national or international advertising campaign rather than using them on an Instagram account with a relatively insignificant audience?


The recommendations in the report are commendable but how many will be implemented in reality? Giving copies of the images to the contributors is relatively simple with portable printers, but it is not very practical. Who will be accountable for this? The UK office? The Country Office? The Photographer? More importantly how will the process be managed and at what cost? It would be more appropriate to provide the contributor with the image used in its final state e.g. adverts, poster, video. This is even less practical, and whilst I’d love to see this happen I’m not holding my breath.

I’m really intrigued about the proposal to develop location and language specific resources to communicate image use more effectively. This is an excellent idea and something that could be developed collaboratively across the sector. I’ll be bold – is this something that DFID or DEC could facilitate?

In publishing the People in the Pictures and inviting a range of guest from across the sector to a formal launch, Save the Children have reinvigorated a discussion that is often buried in the to-do list of well meaning communications directors. Please don’t let this important discussion fade away – use this research as a catalyst to further improve NGO communications and dignified representations of distant others.

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UNDP Eurasia – social media strategies

An interview with Mehmet Erdogan, Digital Communication Specialist at UNDP Instanbul Regional Hub, about UNDP Eurasia and their use of social media.

1. What kind of people following UNDP Eurasia on social media?

We have quite a varied audience. We have a lot of development professionals and UNDP colleagues, but we also have activists and people who are generally passionate about human rights issues and want to make a difference. We have students who are interested from a research standpoint or those about to graduate and hoping to find a job.

Demographics change from platform to platform – on Twitter a lot of our audiences are Western (Europeans and North Americans) but on Facebook we have a lot more people from the region. That makes sense – Twitter is less popular in the region than Facebook is. Across all platforms distribution between men and woman is almost 50-50% and most common age group is 25-34. On Facebook we have many English speakers but also a large number of Russian, Turkish, Albanian, Azerbaijani, Georgian and Arabic speakers.

2. How many different social media accounts are there in the UNDP Eurasia network?

Because we have such a varied audience, we’re trying to keep our social media presence diversified (without spreading ourselves too thin.) Of course we start with the basics – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – but we’re also posting longer pieces on Medium and photo essays on Exposure. Finally, we have a blog platform on our website, where we share reflections of our UNDP colleagues on their work.

But it’s not just about having different social media accounts – creating accounts is easy. What’s more difficult is honouring what each platform is about and producing content that is right for that platform. If you’re simply copy and pasting from one platform to another, you’re not going to get a response back.

3. Social media is already quite saturated with content, both from other development agencies and also many news organizations with high digital budgets. How is UNDP Eurasia trying to stay on top?

This is the question that keeps us occupied most. It’s not enough anymore to be simply caught up with social media trends – you have to be ahead of them. We’re a small team with very limited financial resources, so we’re trying to make up for it with creativity or else freshness in content. Do we have access to a region that others don’t? Are we working on a story that other organisations aren’t? It’s about identifying those opportunities and building our communications around them. We’re living and working in a world that is now primarily communicating in visuals so we have to push the envelope by going beyond reports and blog posts.

We’ve also done major work in the last couple of years to switch from communications to simple storytelling. We know it’s personal stories that move crowds and motivate them towards action. We know if we tell a good story, it helps large amounts of information to become digestible for everyday audiences. That’s why we told the story of a Roma woman in comic form, or created a short video on an intersex activist. For March 8 this year, we told 8 short stories of 8 women in 8 different locations. We produced a TV spot with Turkish celebrities saying no to domestic violence. We want to go beyond simple numbers – we want to tell stories of people on the ground who are affected by or motivate the work we do.  Now we’re exploring how we can use VR or 360 storytelling – we want to see if it can bring an additional freshness to the work that we do.

4. How many people are involved managing these accounts?

We’re a small team of 4 people, including our team leader Nicolas Douillet. It’s primarily me in charge of our social media channels, but everyone contributes with content.

5. Please tell us about your new blogging platform and why it is important.

Blogging has been a major part of UNDP Eurasia’s outreach for at least 5 years now, before I started working here. We call this part of our strategy to Work Out Loud – don’t share only your success, but your failures as well. There’s as much for people to learn from your failures as from your successes – and they’re almost always more interesting. Blogging allows us to share results from the field without having to go through the formalities of finishing a project and producing an 80-page report. Blogging also allows us to reach younger crowds or those coming across our content on-the-go because of its more conversational tone. Finally, blogging helps put a human face on the work that we do. If we’re doing our job right, then it’s personal and fresh and interesting and brings in audiences who wouldn’t normally tune in

6. How does UNDP Eurasia use social media for accountability and transparency?

You may have heard that UNDP has been named #1 for transparency on international aid two consecutive years in a row. So transparency is very important to us here at UNDP Eurasia as well. We use especially Twitter to share latest developments – when we sign a new project or receive aid from a country, we will publicly share the amount. We want to show that we take any grant and aid we receive very seriously. We also share donor information – social media makes it easy both to acknowledge the role of our donors in front of our audiences, but also to keep us accountable to our audiences in front of our donors.

7. How do you monitor feedback on all the various social media channels and how does this feedback influence your strategy?

We’re trying to get better at listening to our audience. We are doing bi-monthly analytics round-ups to see what kind of content is getting bigger engagement. We’re monitoring comments and messages. But at the end of the day, we are a development organisation, not a corporation. We’re not selling a product. So we can’t completely let engagement define the kind of content we’re putting out there. We have an agenda that’s centered around promoting inclusion, human rights, climate action – we have the 17 goals part of Agenda 2030. So engagement can help us see if a particular type of content is or isn’t working well – could we have illustrated this issue with a photo essay instead of a blog post? What’s the length of video that works best on Facebook? Those are the kinds of decisions analytics helps us to make, but our core messages will always remain centered around the values of the United Nations.

You can follow Mehmet on Twitter.


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How can NGOs use Immersive Storytelling to further their cause

Last week I attended the Orama Festival in London, which explored the future of immersive journalism and storytelling. Several NGOs were in attendance and there was a panel discussion on Immersive Journalism content for Social Impact with Charlotte Mikkelborg, Peter Speller, Mary Matheson and Marisol Grandon. There were also content demonstrations of WaterAid’s Aftershock, Plan International’s Mamie’s Dream and Born Into Exile.

A lot of the discussions were based around the technical issues of filming in 360; where do you place the camera? how do you use sounds to prompt the viewer to turn around;  lighting issues; flow of action; proximity and the ethical dilemmas of not knowing what’s behind you when filming or the fact that many people are unaware of what a 360 camera looks like. There were also a lot of discussions around distribution outlets – how do you get people to watch your films once they have been made?

Producing 360 films is getting cheaper, but I did overhear someone say they produced a film for around $35,000 which is cheap. Is it cheap? What is the return on investment? Maybe it’s more to do with training opportunity cost as I genuinely don’t believe that NGOs will recoup the costs of producing a 360 film with donations. One of the panellists claimed that VR increases the conversion rate for NGOs by 100%, another panellist estimated 80%. I didn’t challenge this or ask what they meant by conversion rate – I should have done. Are they talking about donations? Are we due to see an army of street fundraisers armed with VR headsets in the future? Scary thought. Marisol Grandon from Unfold Stories highlighted the impact of VR as an advocacy tool. I expect she was referring to the apparent success of Clouds Over Sidra and it’s launch at DAVOS.

Apparently the VR headset market was worth $5.2 billion in 2016 and will rise to £162 billion in 2020. There was discussion around whether there will be VR fatigue in the not too distant future, but it was agreed that is is extremely unlikely. As technology improves and the cost of headsets fall, 360 video and VR is likely to grow and grow. One speaker said that  “360 video enables us to step into the facts and engage with them” – I’m sorry but I really do not agree with this and it scares me somewhat. There is a great academic paper which debates the ethics of immersive journalism, which is a must read for all journalists/NGOs experimenting with 360/VR. I worry about people describing VR as “transportive”, “emotional” and “evoking empathy” – the stories we receive as viewers are very much down to the orchestration of the director/producer.

At the moment VR is a solitary rather than a community experience, although in China there are already hundreds of VR arcades. One participant at the conference asked whether VR is a backlash to the “light touch” aspects of social media. Very possible – or is it a ethical timebomb just waiting to explode.

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DFID: Using Social Media for Research, Monitoring and Evalution

DFID have recently published a report on how they use social media for research, monitoring and evaluation in the Middle East and North Africa.

The report offers a fascinating insight into the effectiveness and efficiency of using social media as a research tool for M&E. With the help of professionals from Marketing Heaven, we were able to include an analysis of Twitter data and considers areas such as identifying social media influencers in sharing of knowledge, assessing negative versus positive sentiment and what kinds of topics were being discussed.

Methodological approaches are also discussed, outlining some of the limitations such as availability of data and the difficulty of defining the demographic characteristics of Twitter users. 23,693 tweets were purchased via data-reseller Gnip. This sample was pre-selected using common keywords associated with relevant topics.

It’s an interesting report, especially if you are considering using Twitter data collection for international development M&E. There is also a very useful bibliography.

Another DFID Practice Note worth reading is “Using Social Media Data in International Development Research, Monitoring and Evaluation’.

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