I was recently the lead researcher for a study in collaboration with Radi-Aid about the use of imagery in charity / NGO communications. In the study, participants in six Sub-Saharan African countries spoke about their perceptions of aid campaigns and other visual communications from international NGOs (INGOs) and development organisations.
The research involved 74 people from 12 focus groups in aid-receiving communities in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. They discussed imagery from campaigns by Amnesty International, Care International, Cordaid, The Disasters Emergency Committee, Dubai Cares, Oxfam, Save the Children, Unicef and War Child.
Key findings from the study include:
• The majority of respondents thought the images in adverts offer an accurate representation of the situation in Africa.
• There is a need for aid communication to show more diversity in terms of age and race.
• Respondents acknowledge that aid communication is complex, with no single solution.
• It is important that respect and dignity is preserved in the portrayal of people in aid communication.
The frequent portrayal of Africa as a continent in need prompted sadness among the respondents in the study. Such campaigns often depict black children in need, and several of the respondents wished that these stories could be complemented by showing children of other colours or backgrounds, or black doctors, professors or aid workers. They would like to see portrayals of people with agency in their own situations and results of their accomplishments.
I was extremely pleased to be part of this research as it gives people in aid receiving countries the opportunity to voice their opinions on the type of imagery used to depict their continent. Instead of stigmatising poverty and focusing on problems, I hope that aid organisations will respond by showing the positive outcomes of development programmes too.
One of the things I often discuss with students, academics and communications professionals is that development organisations produce a massive amount of communications materials, and the vast majority of them are neglected in critiques by the media and academia. Social media offers organisations the opportunity to tell more nuanced and contextualised stories which are not restricted by an expensive 15-30 TV adverting slot or a billboard with limited space. I hope this report will encourage NGOs and charities to continually improve their representations of poverty and inequality by showing a broader range of stories. Participatory photography and video are excellent tools to enable recipients of aid to tell their own stories and I see these tools being used more and more in the future.
Radi-Aid Research is a collaboration project between the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) and the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia.