Anything But Normal: How the media can be a force for change in the aftermath of Covid-19

Image: A community celebrating the reversal of desertification in the village of Majhoub, Sudan. Photo by Practical Action


Abbie Wells writes about Practical Action’s new campaign and urges the media to work with INGOs as a force for change in the aftermath of Covid-19.

Coronavirus has radically changed life as we know it, but what’s clear is that there’s huge enthusiasm and support for the world not to go back to normal once it’s over – pollution levels are at a record low, plant and animal species that were dwindling are making a resurgence and the world as we know it is unrecognisable. What the world needs now is INGOs, private sector, governments and institutions to work in collaboration and partnership to forge a new world order that protects and benefits those that have suffered the worst effects of Covid-19.

To us, collaboration is key and our work with big corporates and foundations enables us to look up from the detail and the grass roots, take a different perspective and create answers to multi-layered problems. In working with us, we help ensure the private sector understands the needs of the people they want to work with.

A unique opportunity for the media to use their influence

The media should play a key role in helping the world emerge for the better – looking at the way they operate and act almost as convenors of those who can help make change happen, rather than simply operating as news broadcasters. This is a unique opportunity for the media to use their powerful influence as a force for good, in a world where objectivity is fine, but even objectivity itself has become politicised.

Practical Action has many examples of working with the media to generate positive, inspirational and mutually-beneficial coverage that has gone far beyond a simple article in a newspaper. For example, recently, Damian Carrington, The Guardian’s Environment Editor travelled to Sudan to see one of our projects that is helping farmers at the coalface of climate change to regreen the desert and change their lives.

This article was seen by the Head of UNEP in Sudan who went on to share it with the Sudanese Prime Minister and the wider donor community, including DfID. A great example of the impact a positive piece of media coverage can have.

We’ve also worked with a number of Bauer Media outlets including Magic FM and Absolute Radio through partnerships on our UK AidMatch campaigns. These partnerships are important for reaching new people with development messages but equally as a reciprocal, collaborative relationship that benefits Bauer financially and Practical Action in building support and fundraising.

The world should not return to the way it was

At Practical Action we’ve launched a campaign called Anything But Normal, calling for the world not to return to its previous state before coronavirus hit. There’s already been some great strides in the discussion with BBC Radio 4, BBC Sounds and the World Service running a series called ‘Rethink’ focusing on how the world can emerge in a better position post covid-19 and The World Economic Forum are hosting a number of discussions entitled ‘The Great Reset’ which bring together thought leaders, NGOs, the private sector and the media. But there’s more to do and the conversation needs to continue to gather pace and not become side-lined and forgotten.

Collaborations such as that which BBC Futures developed with NESTA are a perfect example of the media working in partnership with NGOs to effect change and at Practical Action it’s something we’re keen to explore.

 

   Abbie Wells | Engagement Officer at Practical Action

 

How the media can help us achieve a real and sustainable green recovery

Image: Pollution in the city of Shanghai, China. Photo by Holger Link on Unsplash


Luna Williams reflects on some of the ways in which the media has chosen to report the positive environmental impacts of the pandemic.

As lockdown draws to a close in the UK, commentators have highlighted some of the positive impacts on the environment. As business closures, travel restrictions, and social distancing policies have been rolled out across the world, the Earth’s airways, seas and roads have been substantially cleared of human activity. With this, so have many of the unattractive elements of humankind’s presence on the planet.

Carbon and nitrogen oxide emissions have plummeted. In China, carbon emissions are down 25% compared to the same period last year, and nitrogen oxide levels dropped 50% in the same period. This story is much the same in other locked-down countries. Since the US implemented restrictions in March, cities around the country have seen massive reductions in pollution levels; New York alone has seen a carbon reduction of almost 60% in just over a month. Similarly, satellite imagery from NASA has shown visible signs of greenhouses gasses clearing across Europe and data has indicated significant drops in European countries’ pollution levels. In the UK, air quality has improved by up to 60% in some cities since the lockdown, and this is mirrored in Italy, Germany, Spain and France.

‘The Earth is slowly healing’ the media tells us

Mainstream and social media reporting has reflected this shift, with many reporters and members of the public coming forward to celebrate the idea that the Earth is healing while humanity hits the pause button. Images of formerly smog-filled cities, like Los Angeles, New Delhi, and Beijing, have surfaced across various platforms, accompanied by headlines and captions which revelled in this concept. “The Earth is slowly healing,” CBS News wrote, while The Guardian described “nature bouncing back” in their coverage.

Alongside this, other tales of a revived natural world have been popping up, forming one of the few so-called ‘silver-linings’ of the COVID-19 pandemic. From deer grazing in a housing estate in East London, to alligators roaming shopping centres in South Carolina, and cayotes at California’s famous tourist attraction the Golden Gate Bridge – pictures, videos and testimonials have excitedly described the presence of wildlife in formerly urban and human-dominated spaces.

Indeed, it makes sense that people are excited by these kinds of stories. With the news dominated by the loss, suffering, and economic hardship the pandemic has already caused, the idea that the world is in some way being revived by humanity’s absence from it has brought with it a ray of comfort for many, who would otherwise have little positivity to hold on to.

The media helps articulate a way forward after the pandemic

In fact, reporting stories like this is extremely important, not just so that we have something to motivate us through what is undeniably one of the hardest times in most of our lifetimes, but also so that we are able to understand just how much impact humanity’s actions do and can have on the world and also to answer questions about what we want a post-pandemic world to look like.

However, there is also a very real danger that discussions around the topic of climate change and the coronavirus can border on ethically dubious territory. When we stop celebrating the temporary revival of the planet as a side-effect of lockdown measures and start celebrating the pandemic itself, a dangerous narrative evolves. This is one that tiptoes into the realms of eco-fascism, a school of thought that dictates permanent, draconian restrictions on human life in the name of environmental revival.

But some newspaper headlines are far from helpful

There are numerous examples of media platforms slipping into this kind of narrative. The Sun, for instance, published an article at the beginning of May that described the fact that “coronavirus has saved [thousands] of lives” due to drops in pollution levels, while The Guardian published a headline (quoted from a UN representative) which stated that COVID-19 was nature’s way of “sending us a message”.

Although it is tempting to want to cling onto something positive at this time, we must remember – as members of the public and as reporters – that a global pandemic cannot and should not be considered a reasonable means of solving the climate emergency. Of course, we should celebrate the environmental changes we are seeing as a by-product of lockdown measures. But we should use the experience as a way of both understanding the importance humanity plays in preserving the health of the planet and forming new, sustainable environmental policies in the future.

The media has a responsibility to ask questions which reflect real, tangible and ethical change. We need more reporting which questions and analyses how we can achieve this. Can remote working become more widespread in a post-pandemic world, for instance? Or could we be effective in building up the renewable energy sector as we make the journey back towards normality? By asking these kinds of questions, the media can play its part in calling the government to action, so that this time can be used as a means of trialling and assessing how we can bring about real, sustainable environmental legislation in the future.

‘Returning to normal’ should be about learning, and finding new and improved ways of protecting the planet — without sacrificing human life or freedom.

 

 

Luna Williams is the political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service. The IAS is an organisation that assists private clients, as well as asylum seekers, refugees and trafficking victims. It is currently working alongside charities on a campaign to encourage the government to call an amnesty for undocumented migrants.

How Plan International UK used video to bring the voices of girls in crisis direct to Parliament

Image: Focus groups in Uganda included participatory art-based activities to reflect on and draw the journey of their lives. Here Alice draws her river of life. © Plan International


Video is a powerful advocacy tool and it’s been at the heart of Plan International UK’s recent Girls in Crisis campaign, as Alex Martin explains.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping the globe, millions of girls around the world were living through crisis – due to conflict, disaster and displacement. That’s why, in March 2020, we launched Our Vision: A Call to Action by Girls in Crisis – an eight-point plan for change, co-created with girls and young women living through crisis.

Our experience shows that girls are among the worst affected by any crisis, yet their voices are often the least heard. This is despite that fact that they are the experts in their own lives and know what needs to change.

We needed to understand the change they wanted to see, so that we could bring it to life through their own voices

From the start, we saw this as a multimedia project with voice, video and photography at the heart as a key tool in our advocacy approach. We ran youth-led consultations with over 150 young people – Congolese refugees in Rwanda, South Sudanese refugees in Northern Uganda and girls living in conflict-affected North East Nigeria. Each location represented a different experience of what it is like to be a girl living through crisis, whilst also sharing many commonalities. From this, together, we created a clear blueprint for change for the international community to endorse.

“It is important for governments to listen to the voice of the girls so they can resolve our issues.”
Umalisa, 22, Congolese refugee in Rwanda
middle column“I wish for the future generations to be deciding for themselves, advocating for others and having a peaceful place to live.”
Sandrine, 27, Congolese refugee in Rwanda
We knew that, to be effective, this needed to be more than a written document

We wanted these inspirational young women to have the opportunity to tell their stories to leaders and decision makers themselves – to deliver this in their own words and to finally have their voices heard. Therefore, we created a video Call to Action.

Video is a powerful tool to give these young women the platform to directly share their story. But we would only have one opportunity to film with the young women in each country. It meant that consultations, policy analysis and filming were happening at the same time. We took the time to answer questions, explain the campaign and ensure all participants understand where their voices would be heard – in Rwanda, the conversation about consent took over an hour. It was brilliant to see the girls empowered to ask us some tough questions and make an informed decision as to whether to be involved. It was fast-paced and challenging but it was worth it – the result feels truly owned by the young people.

The video is a culmination of this process – each girl’s story and demand spoken directly to camera with a montage of solidarity at the end – and we are so proud of it.

It is a powerful reminder of the resilience and strength of young women and their capacity to change the world

We launched the Call to Action at an event in the UK Houses of Parliament in early March. The video took centre stage and it was so powerful to watch as screens all across the room broadcast the girls’ eight-point plan for change directly to decision makers.

Since then, the context has changed dramatically due to the corona virus pandemic. This has exacerbated the difficult living conditions for those living in humanitarian contexts such as refugee camps, where water is scarce, conditions crowded and social distancing often not an option. And we know from our experiences during the Ebola outbreak that girls face unique challenges during such crises.

We know it is more important than ever to ensure we are listening directly to girls and ensuring their voices are central to our advocacy.

That’s why we are reaching out to the girls involved in developing this Call to Action to hear about the impacts that this pandemic is having on their lives so this can be reflected in the project. Next, we will be calling on the international community to endorse this Call to Action with a focus on ensuring that the rights and needs of girls living in crises are central to world leaders’ agenda at the G7 Summit in the UK in 2021.

Watch the Call to Action video

 

communications officer at plan international   Alex Martin | Communications Officer at Plan International UK

 

Uganda photography by Quinn Neely and Rwanda photography by Rob Beechey – Copyright 2020

The media are failing to tell the stories of 1 billion people

Image: The little girl, Fymee is learning to walk again on her new artificial leg in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. © William Daniels / HI


Disabled people are fast becoming the forgotten victims of this pandemic. There are an estimated 1 billion people with disabilities worldwide and yet their stories are consistently under reported by the media. We invited Vikki Furse from IBT member Humanity & Inclusion to give us her view.

Despite being “the world’s biggest minority”, people with disabilities are often forgotten and their stories are not heard. They regularly face discrimination and exclusion from water and sanitation, healthcare, education, work, and community life. Should they also face exclusion from the media? We at Humanity & Inclusion say no, we need the media to highlight this terrible inequality.

Now more than ever we can’t ignore the plight of 1 in 7 human beings who desperately need our attention and compassion. In times of crisis, like the one we are living through with Covid19, we know that people with disabilities will be disproportionately impacted and will be left behind. Although there has been some media coverage highlighting the stories of people with disabilities, too many media outlets ignore their plight. We recently received a reply from a global news outlet, saying that they could not report the story of the people we support because they do not cover disability

How can it be that any media organisation can simply decide to ignore the stories of 1 billion people?

We are hearing stories of isolation, exclusion and hopelessness from the people with disabilities we support around the world.  In a survey of 700 people with disabilities in Nepal, which we have just released, almost a third report a mental health impact, like anxiety and hopelessness and three quarters are experiencing a drop in their basic household income.

Every day we hear the stories of the people behind these statistics. Like Bimala and her son Birendra from Nepal. Birenda is 12 and has cerebral palsy. Before the lockdown we were providing him with regular physiotherapy and also making sure he was included in school, which meant that his mother was able to go to work during the day. With the lockdown, Birenda’s school has shut. His mother can’t take him to the hospital to get his treatment. She has to stay at home to take care of him and she can’t work. Because of his disability, Birenda does not understand the current pandemic and why he can’t go to school. With the lack of money, Bimala is very worried about the future of her family and how she is going to provide for them.

Birenda and Bimala’s story is one of thousands that our colleagues hear every day

But their stories should not only be heard by us, they should be heard by everyone. Everyone should know about the terrible impact Covid19 is having on so many people with disabilities. And for this we need the media to relay their stories.

 

vikki furse head of communications at humanity and inclusion  Vikki Furse | Head of Communications and Individual Giving at Humanity & Inclusion UK

What WaterAid can teach us about handwashing

Image: Sashi, a Chikankari worker is pictured washing her hands before she cooks meals for her family in Sadamau, on the outskirts of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India on 20 December 2019. Photographer – Anindito Mukherjee for WaterAid India


IBT member, WaterAid, is one of the world’s leading experts on handwashing and hygiene promotion and the COVID-19 pandemic has given its work added urgency. Om Prasad Gautam shares his top tips on achieving the change in behaviour that is necessary if the pandemic is to be tackled successfully.

The current battle against the spread of the COVID-19 has highlighted in horrifically stark terms the fundamental importance of handwashing with soap and water in controlling the spread of infectious diseases. Three billion people across the world – and 75% of the population in the least developed countries – do not have access to somewhere to wash their hands with soap and water.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this lack of the most basic of services together with a denial of rights to water and sanitation, led every year to tens of thousands of deaths from diarrhoeal and waterborne diseases, mostly hidden from the headlines and ignored by those with the power to change this situation.

Now in the face of a terrifying disease, everyone is having to learn quickly about putting hygiene at the heart of daily life. Currently, fear is acting as a powerful stimulus for people to drastically change their behaviour, but we know this may not last for long. Here are the key lessons that we have learnt from working in this field for almost 40 years.

1. It’s more than just soap and water

You can’t just give people soap and expect them to want to use it, know how to use it or why. If you are forced to decide between buying food or school books or soap, then just being told that soap is important is not enough to put it on the shopping list and change behaviour around washing hands.

We all know that knowledge only is not enough – otherwise we would all adhere faithfully to public health guidelines on exercise, diet, smoking etc. Key to bringing about lasting behaviour change is understanding and targeting the motives that drive people to change their habits – so they can move from knowledge to actual practice. When there is an outbreak of disease like now or during Ebola outbreaks, a motivation to change behaviour can be fear but it can be temporary stimulus.

But Ebola showed us that often behaviours adopted during a time of acute crisis do not become long term so WaterAid works with other motivations such as nurture –loving your family and wanting to protect them. Other drivers include a sense of wanting to fit in and so we work to make washing hands a social norm.

2. It has to include everyone

Gender, age, disability, ethnicity, race, religion and economic and health status all play a part in determining who will and won’t have access to the basic necessities of clean water, sanitation and handwashing facilities.

We are committed to tackling inequalities across all strata of society and our programmes always consider how everyone, especially those that are the most marginalised – can access them.

3. Go beyond your immediate sector

What’s clear is that there are strategic moments when messages and lessons around hygiene are most effectively transmitted and it is often by working in tandem with other sectors, such as health or education, that change is most successfully implemented. For example, we reached thousands of mothers with life-saving hygiene lessons in Nepal when they took their babies to be vaccinated in a government-run routine immunisation programme.

4. Schools, homes, hospitals – it has to be everywhere

Even the best designed behaviour change programme to get people to wash their hands will fail if there is nowhere to wash hands. So our work is community wide – helping to ensure that every home, school and healthcare centre has somewhere to wash hands with soap. Yet globally only around half of schools have somewhere for pupils to wash their hands with soap and water and over 40% of healthcare facilities have nowhere for doctors and nurses to wash their hands where they see patients.

5. A whole system needs to be in place

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes that focus solely on providing taps, toilets and one-off trainings are unlikely to deliver lasting outcomes. To be successful, you need a whole ecosystem in place – so you need taps that keep working because the utility company is well staffed and adequately financed, you need every teacher and every school child to receive training, you need the health centre to be able to rely on always having soap available. Otherwise, it is just not possible to keep the good habits going.

6. Support, influence and work with Governments

We have learnt that by supporting and working with governments, we can be most effective and implement at scale. This means making the case as to why investing in WASH pays dividends in terms of increased health, dignity and productivity. In the face of a global pandemic, the importance of good WASH is hard to overstate and so we are working with governments to rapidly increase the provision of handwashing facilities and also supporting mass media behaviour change campaigns.

7. Research, monitor and evaluate

Our behaviour change work is based on getting to know the community context – what matters to people, what holds back people for behaviour change, what motivates them and then monitoring over time to see if the programme has been effective. Then we evaluate and make changes as needed.

8. Use the media creatively

Most of our initial COVID-19 response has been using digital, social and mass media, in order to comply with social distancing requirements. For example, in Zambia we have worked with celebrities, athletes and artists to record hygiene promotion videos that have been posted on social media platforms. In India we launched a high profile campaign using text messaging, WhatsApp groups, community radio and local TV channels. In more normal times, we also use community-based projects like performing traditional dance and theatre in Ethiopia to pass on hygiene lessons.

 

Om Prasad Gautam | Senior WASH Manager – Hygiene, WaterAid UK

Let’s make the case for a swift, collective global response

Image: March 2020 – Djenné, Mali. Mercy Corps is adapting its programming, like this food and sanitary product voucher distribution under the Food and Reconciliation in Mopti program, with social distancing and hygiene measures.


Communicating during the COVID-19 crisis is a challenge for INGOs. Maryam Mohsin, media manager at BOND, suggests how we can find the right tone of voice in our media and public messaging.

For the first time in the living memories of many of us, the whole world is facing the same immediate threat: Covid-19. How we speak to others, the language we use and what information we trust counts now more than ever. We only need to switch on the news and listen to political leaders for five seconds to see the impact words and tone can have on relationships between people and countries.

So, how can we all get our communications right at a time when everyone’s priorities have shifted and when the UK public is being bombarded by Covid-19 related news from every direction?

I recently worked with policy and media colleagues from UK INGOs, big and small, to help flesh out appropriate words, feelings and sentiments that can help us reach our audiences with the thought and care needed.

Here are some key ideas on how to effectively communicate during this crisis.

Empathy, solidarity and hope need to be the cornerstones of communications right now

As development and humanitarian communications professionals, at times working in some of the most challenging contexts, we know this all too well. There have sadly been too many moments when I have spoken to people at their rawest, and in moments when they have needed to get their story out in the hope of making something change. Right now, these are the same conversations I am having with family, friends and colleagues, as well as people working in countries around the world.

Showing sensitivity to what’s happening in the UK is crucial, especially when we know we haven’t seen the worst of this crisis yet. Many UK INGOs are showing solidarity by reconfiguring their services to the UK to help take the pressure off frontline services. Others are volunteering to help get food to people most at risk.

But we can also do this through the words we use. Everyone can see frontline workers putting their lives at risk for us and we all want the people we care about to get through this.

Let’s praise the heroes in societies around the world and recognise that everyone’s fears, worries and tragedies are equally valid

There’s no “I” in “us.”

Like many of us in the sector, I find it hard to let go of the idea that charities help others because it’s the right thing – not because of what we’re set to gain. Covid-19 puts the whole of humanity in the same boat. Right now, we need to make the case for a swift, collective global response whenever we get the opportunity.

We need to emphasise that the world is only as strong as its weakest health care link. This message will help us hit home the reality that if we don’t act now to help people everywhere, we risk losing lives and will struggle to return to normality anytime soon. There is currently no cure for Covid-19, which is why talking about the global nature of this crisis and the need for a global, unified response is critical. Because it is the truth.

Remember the importance of using language that reflects hope, backed up by facts. We are seeing countries help one another emerge from the other side. Serious conversations about debt relief for poorer countries are happening. Let’s also remember how far we have come in eradicating polio, malaria, smallpox and nearly ebola. The world has people with the expertise to help countries pull through this.

Demonstrate why INGOs are now more important than ever

Why are INGOs so important to tackling the Covid-19 crisis? Because we will ensure nobody is left behind.

This is what the third sector does best, both here in the UK and globally. We reach people who are hardest to reach. We are the relentless voice in political ears that flags problems and solutions, and are quick to point out the gaps in funding or programming that leave the vulnerable behind. We make sure leaders do what they say they are going to do, and are transparent and accountable. We deliver on the ground through communities and local partners.

We do this life-saving work by helping the people hardest hit to tell their own stories. In your communications, talk about the people you support and their needs in this crisis. Talk about who you are, what you do and how your INGO can help us get on the front foot of this crisis, especially to your existing supporters, the wider public, policy makers and political leaders. If ever there was a time to support the third sector in all the shapes and sizes it comes in – this is it.

Maryam Mohsin | Media Manager, Bond

It’s time for the media to shine a light on the world’s most vulnerable communities as they fight this pandemic

Image: Mercy Corps adapting its humanitarian aid programming, like this registration for emergency cash distribution in the DRC, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


By Douglas Alexander, Christina Lamb, Simon O’Connell, Ed Williams, Ceri Thomas and Anne-Marie Tomchak

It is understandable how in these complex and challenging times, as we’re asked to socially distance and self-isolate, that there’s a tendency to look inwards. However, now more than ever, we should be connecting with others around the world who are also facing the same threat. The COVID-19 pandemic transcends borders, it is a global crisis and if we are to overcome it, the solutions have to be local, global and collective. 

Journalists and media outlets in the UK are already playing an important role in providing vital information to an anxious public. In the months ahead they will also have a key role to play in finding and communicating these solutions, and in telling our shared stories. 

While it’s understandable that we are all worried about our own families, communities and countries in these difficult times, we know from our experience that people in fragile and conflict-affected places will be disproportionally affected by this virus. Vulnerable communities around the world already experiencing humanitarian need due to violence, poverty, food insecurity and extreme weather are more susceptible and for many, COVID-19 is just the latest in a long line of emergencies threatening their families, their lives and their livelihoods.

Media coverage of coronavirus needs to expand beyond domestic news

At a time when people are crying out for social connection, when we are seeing news consumption levels rise exponentially, with almost half of the population saying they are watching more television and one-third reading more newspaper content, there’s now a great need for coverage to expand beyond domestic news, share knowledge and connect the local with the global like never before.  For a country as outward-looking and internationalist as the UK, there’s a responsibility on all of our media outlets and news correspondents to step up and recognise the importance of better international coverage in the weeks ahead.

We welcome the BBC’s (the most trusted brand on the coronavirus) new Africa tracker, launched last week and the Independent’s coverage of an Imperial College report looking at the potential impact on lower-income countries. Can we have more of these?

The world is facing a never-before-seen event on a global scale. Younger people are becoming more engaged with media, with a 60% increase in streaming among people aged 18 to 24 and a 49% increase in live TV viewing. It is our responsibility to provide them with the full global picture, and the harsh reality is that this pandemic is going to hit other, more fragile countries much, much harder.

Let’s celebrate some of the stories of heroic efforts being made around the world

As we rightly see the celebration of so many of our local heroes and inspiring stories of community spirit and volunteerism, there are also incredible stories of people in places like Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan who are adapting quickly in the face of huge constraints to ensure people have the urgent supplies they need.  Health, water and sanitation teams pivoting to protect communities against COVID-19, examples of social distancing in refugee camps, and innovative remote management of ongoing emergency distributions.

As well as informing and awareness-raising, the media can also play a crucial role in demonstrating our inter-connectedness and global responsibilities – which include reminding the UK Government of its ongoing commitment to help vulnerable communities around the world, upholding the values of humanity and compassion, and showing us that we are more dependent on each other than ever before.

Our message to the UK media

To the UK media, we ask: help us shine a light on the most vulnerable communities battling this outbreak, partner with us to tell the stories that connect us all – of teams striving to respond to the world’s greatest needs in some of the world’s most challenging places and against all odds, and support us to share solutions, so that together we can beat this, for everyone.

 


Douglas Alexander, Former Secretary of State for International Development
Christina Lamb, Sunday Times Chief Foreign Correspondent
Simon O’Connell, Executive Director for Mercy Corps
Ceri Thomas, Tortoise News 
Anne-Marie Tomchak, Journalist and broadcaster
Ed Williams, President and CEO of Edelman EMEA

Douglas, Christina, Ceri, Anne-Marie and Ed are all members of Mercy Corps’ European Leadership Council

 

New ways of telling stories

We recently launched our new report Podcasts: where next? In the audience was Catherine Raynor, co-founder of Mile 91, a storytelling agency for charities and changemakers that provides both production and training services. She was previously Head of Media at VSO and during that time was a Trustee of IBT. We asked Catherine to give us her key takeaways from the report.

If someone told you there was a way to tell stories that didn’t mean squeezing everything into two minutes, was possible to produce on a low budget and that would result in more than half your audience researching more about what they’d learnt, would you be interested in knowing what that was? I assume your answer is yes.

These are just some of the things I learnt at the launch of Podcasts: where next? I think we’ve all been to events where we come out with a freshly clear inbox and a report that eventually finds its way into the recycling. This is not one of them and I would really encourage any charity storyteller, regardless of whether you work for an international organisation, to read this report because it is packed full of really fascinating insight and practical advice that is transferable to any sector.

The panel event, hosted by Channel 4 and chaired by Krishnam Guru-Murthy, was a rich, varied and at times funny conversation. Here are my top ten takeaways:

 

1. The market is booming

In 2019 one in eight adults listened to a podcast at least once a week, double the number just five years earlier. But the stat that blew my mind is that in the 15-24 age group podcast downloads surpassed music downloads for the first time in 2019. For charities desperately trying to reach younger audiences this is massive news.

 

2. They’re the most engaged audiences in town

68% of audiences listen to the entire episode they’ve downloaded and with 91% listening alone you really do have a captive audience. 67% of listeners go on to discuss a topic with family and friends and 52% will research more about the topic.

 

3. Longer is better

In an era when a three minute film is the ‘long’ version and an in-depth written story tops out at about 500 words, podcasts are almost inconceivably luxurious in the opportunity they offer. But 20 minutes is seen as the best digestible length.

 

4. You can be nuanced

The longer length means you can explore an issue or a story in more length, unpicking back stories and discussing the complexities of an issue. People who listen to podcasts are an interested audience who are actively seeking information so give it to them

 

5. Don’t be boring

Actively seeking information is not an invitation to be lectured to. Podcasts are still entertainment, so find creative ways to broach your issues. One of the panellists, Sarah King, was from the Institute of Development Studies and their podcast is called Between the Lines which follows the book group model, centring each episode on a different book.

 

6. Ditch your talking heads

Podcasts are not the place for clipped rehearsed soundbites. We’ve all turned off the radio when a slick overly trained spokesperson is spouting key messages and that’s just a one minute interview. Podcasts are intimate experiences and need engaging and authentic voices who will talk freely and openly.

 

7. Podcasts are good for sex

A comment that got a ripple of laughter from the audience, but the point was serious: podcasts allow you to liberate issues and conversations that may not work for radio or the TV sofa shows.

 

8. Commitment is needed

Chucking out one podcast and expecting it to be a success is not going to work. Commitment and consistency is needed and you have to invest time in discoverability. Whether you go for an interview, round table discussion or narrative format, it will take time to grow your audience so you need to commit to a series or a regular pattern of new episodes.

 

9. Content is evergreen

Although it will take time to build your audience old episodes will always be there (if you want them to be) and so, when you capture new audiences, they will be able to rummage around in your archives.

 

10. They are not expensive

Podcasts do not need to be big budget endeavours. Taking your audiences to communities and countries they may not otherwise visit is an opportunity but it is not the only way. With the right voices you can produce perfectly good podcasts in a quiet room and with a good quality microphone.

 

These are just some of my takeaways but the report is full of lots more interesting insight plus advice on hosting platforms and how to pitch stories to existing podcast. Do have a read.

Global Britain after Brexit

It’s time for the media to stop focusing on Brexit and look more closely at the UK’s global role. The general election is a great opportunity for the international development community to highlight UK soft power as the sector makes the case for retaining 0.7% and the importance of a separate Department for International Development.

By Nasim Salad, UK Policy & Advocacy Coordinator, ONE

 

In the last 3 years, Brexit has dominated not only UK foreign policy, but also media coverage in general. As such, the role of Britain’s global influence has received few column inches despite our soft power being amongst the best in the world.

Britain is currently ranked as 2nd in the Soft Power Index. From our world class universities and lifesaving scientific research, to our internationally renowned entertainers and artists, Britain’s global influence across academia, science and culture is well documented. Yet, Britain’s commitment to international development, one of the most prominent contributors to our world-class soft power, is all too often omitted.

Whilst the British press enjoys lauding our international pre-eminence in areas such as sport or science, the global recognition and respect for the UK on its development assistance is rarely covered. Many people are often surprised that the UK is admired for its international development achievements.

During the general election, this positive narrative should be conveyed more strongly across platforms, to inform the public of not just the incredible work that UK aid achieves, but to also celebrate that our development efforts are applauded globally.

Maintain 0.7%

Former Secretary of State for International Development, Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell, once described the UK as a “development superpower”. The UK commits to spend 0.7% of its national income on aid, the only major economy to do so. The Overseas Development Institute has said it is necessary for every donor country to reach this target to end extreme poverty. This commitment is recognised internationally; a British Council survey of 20,000 young people from across the G20 nations showed that support for global development was the greatest driver of trust in the UK.

Retain a separate DFID

Britain’s development efforts are highly regarded. The Department for International Development (DFID), the main Government department delivering UK aid, is frequently ranked as one of the best development agencies in the world for its effectiveness and its transparency. UK aid has a remarkable impact on some of the poorest people in the world. In just 4 years, UK aid has reached 32 million people with humanitarian aid, helped 56 million children to be immunised, and supported 14 million children to gain a decent education. The British public understand that their generosity is helping to alleviate poverty. Recent polling suggests that 89% of UK respondents believe that helping people in developing countries is important.

At a time of political instability and rising populism, it is vital that Britain remains outward looking. This means ensuring that we retain an independent Department for International Development. In their Soft Power Index report, the authors at Portland Communications remark on recent rumours about departmental mergers, suggesting that such a merger would;  “Send a signal that the UK cares less about global development than it once did. The resulting impact on Britain’s soft power is unlikely to be positive.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and DFID are both experts in their respective fields. DFID lifts people out of poverty by educating children and vaccinating young mothers. The FCO exerts Britain’s diplomatic prowess in the world’s most difficult regions. Combining the functions of the departments risks blurring their respective objectives and damaging our international reputation just when we need it most.

2020 is a make or break year, Britain has many opportunities to enhance its soft power. It will be hosting the UK-Africa Investment Summit, the COP 26 (UN Climate Change Conference), and the Replenishment Conference for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. These summits offer major opportunities to enhance this global presence, and to lead efforts to promote sustainable economic growth in Africa, tackle climate change, and end preventable disease.

Maintaining the 0.7% commitment and accelerating efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will be key to preserving our hard-earned global reputation. Now, more than ever, the British media need to be cheerleaders for our soft power.

 

Climate refugees – why the language the media uses matters

Since 2008, around 26.4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, not for political reasons, but because of environmental disasters. Natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and droughts have been hitting humanity without prejudice; displacing millions of men, women and children all across the globe.

 

The label ‘Climate Refugee’ has been commonly attributed to those individuals forced out of their home countries for disturbances relating to nature and is used across mainstream media platforms. Worryingly, however, despite having to leave their nations, they do not fall under the ‘traditional refugee’ model; meaning they are not offered the same protection or rights. This is because the 1951 Refugee Convention states that a person must be fleeing direct persecution, which threatens their life or safety, to be defined as a refugee. This persecution often relates to religion, political belief, race, sexuality, and gender identity. Obviously, a climate refugee cannot claim to be persecuted by nature – at least not in any sense beyond metaphorical – and so therein lies the issue.

As climate change continues to displace more and more people every day, it is important to consider how the mainstream media addresses the topic. Dina Ionesco, the Head of the Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) Division at the UN Migration Agency, feels that the term climate refugee is perhaps a harmful one for many reasons. She suggests, instead, that it should be replaced with the term ‘climate migrant’.

In an article for the UN, Ionesco reasons that, while using the term refugee resonates symbolically, it is not an accurate label. This is because climate migration is mainly internal. Individuals largely do not cross borders and therefore don’t need to seek protection from a third country, or at an international level, as refugees do. She also explains that migration is not necessarily forced, because the onset of climate change often occurs at a slow pace; therefore movement is, to a degree, a matter of choice. She suggests that countries think first of migration management and agreements rather than refugee protection. She also warns that opening the 1951 Refugee Convention, as to include climate migrants, might weaken the refugee status which would be tragic given that so many people severely need protection.

Instead of creating new terms and notions, Ionesco encourages the use of already existing laws. She suggests that human rights-based approaches are vital for addressing climate migration, pointing out that the governments of these countries must hold the primary responsibility for their citizens’ protection. She states that many migration management solutions are available to provide a status for those who move in the context of climate change impacts. These solutions could come in the form of humanitarian visas, temporary protection, authorization to stay, and regional and bilateral free movements’ agreements.

Although the matter of how the media defines climate migrants is a question that still needs to be answered with more clarity, one thing is clear: the issue of climate change is not going anywhere. In 2018, there were a recorded 17.2 million new displacements associated with disasters in 148 countries and territories. Figures such as this prove just how monumental the problem is. However, there remains no set definition within global or national law and policy to protect these environmentally displaced individuals. The sooner these groups can be fairly categorised, the sooner they can receive the right legal treatment and consequent protection. But until such a time, perhaps the mainstream media should reconsider its blanket use of the term ‘climate refugee’.

 


This article has been written by Hal Fish who is a political correspondent for the Immigration Advice Service; an organisation of UK immigration solicitors.

Islamophobia in the media: Enough is enough

I never thought I’d be the victim of Islamophobia – I’m not a Muslim, after all. But working in comms for an Islamic charity, Islamic Relief UK, I have come to accept that it is now part and parcel of my everyday life.

 

I’m not alone, obviously, and what I face is a tiny fraction of the Islamophobic abuse my Muslim friends and colleagues face. In our office, the social media team regularly reviews offensive remarks on our social channels, weighing up whether to ignore, rebuff or report them. In fact, so hateful are some of the comments, we even have a dedicated police officer to whom we report. Likewise, my colleagues in the media team frequently have to respond to Islamophobic reports in the press about our work.

So just how widespread is Islamophobia in the media and why does it influence all of our work?

Mainstream media: Offensive reports and negative stereotypes

Anyone interested in the subject of Islamophobia in the media must follow the incomparable Miqdaad Versi. Assistant General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain, Versi records examples of Islamophobia in the British press and, where possible, gains corrections on inaccurate stories. It’s practically a full-time job.

As Versi says in his article Islamophobia not an issue in the British press? You’ve got to be kidding, anti-Muslim sentiment is rife in the mainstream media. Surprisingly the editor-in-chief of the Daily Express, Gary Jones, agrees. He has admitted that many of the stories published in the paper prior to his arrival had contributed to an “Islamophobic sentiment” in the media and that its front pages had sometimes been “downright offensive”.

 

Examples of media coverage of Islam

 

Anyone with even a passing interest in the news can see that Islamophobic comments are promoted by broadcasters as well, with right-wing extremists invited onto news and political programmes on a regular basis, often without being challenged about their Islamophobia. Sadly, chasing ratings seems to be more important than acquiring balance or reasoned debate.

So why do editors and broadcasters allow such words to be published or spoken without question? Versi is frank on this issue: “Let us not kid ourselves. Stories that play on the public’s fears and feed their prejudices are popular.”

In The role of the media in the spread of Islamophobia Sam Woolfe argues that “the media uses bold and harsh language to promote this kind of fear because bad news sells”. This constant drip feed of bad news focussed on Muslims and Islam merely “propagates and reinforces negative stereotypes of Muslims (e.g. that Muslims are terrorists, criminals, violent or barbaric).”

Drawing the line: Using the Riz Test

Such biased, negative coverage, however, doesn’t just appear on the news or politically-focused programmes. No, just think about last year’s inexplicably popular TV programme Bodyguard, which focused on Islamic terrorism. It pandered to every single stereotype of a Muslim: the cowed and oppressed woman (wearing the niqab) and the terrorist suicide bomber.

 

BBC’s popular drama, Bodyguard accused of stereotyping

 

It broke every single rule of the Riz Test, which adopts five criteria to measure how Muslims are portrayed on film and TV. To put is simply, if the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by their ethnicity, language or clothing), one should ask: Is the character

  1. Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?
  2. Presented as irrationally angry?
  3. Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
  4. Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
  5. If male, is he presented as misogynistic? Or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, then the film/TV show in question fails the test. It’s that simple. Try it next time you watch a TV show, the news or read the paper. You’ll be surprised how few actually pass the Riz Test.

The power of the media: Real consequences

So, are Muslims disproportionately bad or does the media focus only on the bad stories?

In Spreading Islamophobia: Consequences Of Negative Media Representations, Muniba Saleem in fact highlights how current negative representations of Muslims in the media actually propagate harmful behaviour. Saleem explains how, given the extent to which the British public is influenced by the media, negative portrayals of Muslims in the media result in an increase in “negative attitudes towards Muslims” and “support for policies that harm Muslims.”

Having worked in international development for the past 25 years, I have myself noticed exactly the same thing when I first came to work at Islamic Relief. In my blog on Islamophobia, I point out how many of my friends and family automatically had negative assumptions about Islamic Relief based not on their knowledge of the charity, but on their ignorance of Islam and Muslims as a whole.

Given that only 5% of the British population is Muslim, it is likely that most people in the mainstream know very few Muslims, so their negative perceptions are unlikely to be based on actual experiences. Instead, they are much more likely to be based on what they have seen or heard in the mainstream media. Some of this is, of course, based on the reporting of terrorist acts perpetrated by Islamists. Yet in relative terms, are Muslims actually committing more terrorist acts than anyone else?

Well, the figures speak for themselves. Recent research undertaken after the brutal murders in Woolwich found that in the decade prior to that event, press coverage on Muslims and Islam in British-based newspapers had increased by around 270% and 91% were of a negative nature. What’s more, Islamists are three times more likely to be called ‘terrorists’ in media coverage of attacks than those on the far-right. Islamists were (rightly) referred to as terrorists in 78% of news coverage, however far-right extremists were only identified by this label in 27% of articles.

Social media obviously plays its part too. When each terrorist attack happens, a flurry of offensive tweets are unleashed. Journalists in search of a quick soundbite and so-called balance seek out soundbites from the worst offenders. Thus people like convicted criminal and former-EDL leader, Tommy Robinson, gain a disproportionate amount of coverage.

 

 

Islamophobia in the media: The effects

The reality of Islamophobia in the media affects Muslims in every area of their lives. Here at Islamic Relief, every time we carry out a fundraising or advocacy campaign, we have to think carefully about how this will be reported in the press and on social media. Of course, every NGO worth its salt should carry out a risk assessment on its campaigns. However, not every NGO has to think about how their words or stories might be twisted by an Islamophobic (often far-right) agenda.

As Ramadan begins, we launch our latest campaign featuring an inspirational quote from the Qur’an on buses in major cities asking: “Can you be 5:32?” This Qur’anic verse states: “Whosoever saves a life, it is as though they had saved the whole of mankind”.

 

Islamic Relief UK’s Ramadan campaign

 

It’s a beautiful inspirational quote which reminds Muslims of the sanctity of life and recalls our own mission – to transform and save lives. Nonetheless, we had to prepare ourselves for potential backlash. Some of the many questions we had to consider at length included:

  • Would we be attacked for advertising on buses, with people asking why we do so when Islamic terrorists have blown themselves up on buses?
  • Would we be told we were only allowed to put this message on the bus because we have a Muslim mayor?
  • If we quote the Qur’an to illustrate a positive point, will another quote be parroted back at us by far-right extremists to highlight what they think of as a negative quote?
  • If we go on TV or radio to defend the campaign, is there a possibility that the interview will get hijacked by Tommy Robinson?
  • Is there a possibility that our ads will be vandalised?
  • Will we be asked to justify the actions of the Sultan of Brunei (making homosexuality punishable by death)?

Are we being paranoid? Are we looking too much into things? Absolutely not. All of the above and more have happened to us over the past year alone. It’s horrid that as we prepare for the holy month of Ramadan – a month in which Muslims partake in immense charitable giving – that we should have to prepare for an Islamophobic backlash in the media and on social media. Yet this is the reality.

So next time you see a negative headline about a Muslim or Islam, ask yourselves what’s the real story behind the headline? Likewise, as you tune into a new TV show, film or video game featuring a Muslim character, ask yourselves ‘does it pass the Riz Test?’ If the answer is ‘no’, then simply switch it off. Please. As a non-Muslim, I can confidently say that such features do more harm than good. Islamophobia in the media threatens us all, whatever our faith and cultural background. It’s time to put an end to this abuse, today. Be aware of media bias, use the Riz test and ensure that you’re not propagating harmful Islamophobic narratives. We all deserve better.

 


This article has been written by Judith Escribano, Head of Communications at Islamic Relief UK.

 

Why children’s TV needs the support of campaigners for international development

What children watch on TV has a major impact on their understanding of their world and could affect their future support for, and interest in, international development.
By Lorriann Robinson, IBT advocacy adviser 

 

The UK is recognised as a global leader in aid and development and the generosity of the UK Government is matched, perhaps even surpassed by that of the UK public. Over the past 30 years, the UK public have donated more than a £1 billion to Comic Relief and in the past month alone, the public donated over £33 million to help families in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi to recover from Cyclone Idai.

Campaigners understand that we need to keep making the case for aid and development and this requires strong public support for global development. Development agencies often engage young people through their programmes and campaigns, but few make the connection between what children see on their TV screens and how this might influence support for development causes in the years to come. There is already compelling research to show these issues are connected.

New IBT research shows children want to know more about the global world. 80% of the children we surveyed for The Challenge of Children’s TV said they were interested in the world outside the UK; 86% felt it was important for them to know what was happening in the world but only 9% said that they knew a lot about other countries. Children’s programmes that focus on other countries are greatly skewed towards North America and there is very limited coverage of some regions, particularly the Middle East. Despite the interest from children to see more television content about the wider world, this need was not being adequately met by the UK’s public service broadcasters. Overall IBT’s research found that international issues and events are not on most children’s radars.

All of this means children are missing opportunities to understand the developing world. The share of television content telling children about the developing world has dropped significantly between 2007 and 2018, and last year, only 17% of new international content shown on the UK’s main public service broadcast channels featured the developing world, compared with 30% in 2007. Children interviewed for IBT’s study shared the same, sometimes negative, perceptions of Africa, having watched television adverts and news items that depict poverty and suffering on the continent.

This matters for children, for the UK, and for development causes. High quality children’s content about the global word can help children to understand and contextualise news events which can help to reduce their anxieties about these events. It can also help to promote social cohesion, encourage democratic engagement and help children to develop skills that will be essential to the 21st century workplace.

Children are the development supporters, campaigners, and leaders of tomorrow and it’s in all of our interest to ensure they have a balanced understanding of developing countries, the people who live in these countries and the issues that affect their lives. As IBT’s research shows, children are being let down by broadcasters who are not doing enough to show children in the UK a balanced perspective of the wider world.

 


IBT’s new research report, The Challenge of Children’s TV, looks at how children see the world, where they get their information from and how new media content can be more effectively targeted at children to engage them with what is happening in the wider world.

Download Report

Why Children Need To Understand Global Issues

For our third article in our The Challenge of Children’s TV blog series, we heard from the Executive Director of Unicef UK, Mike Penrose, about the benefits of children being aware of global issues, the best way to engage them in the wider world and Unicef’s collaboration with First News, a weekly news publication for children.

 

Q: In your opinion, what are the benefits of children in the UK being aware of what is happening in the wider world?

At Unicef UK, we know that children who are engaged in international issues at a young age are more likely to be active citizens who want to make a positive contribution to the world.

There is also research which suggests that getting involved in action towards a better world has a positive impact on young people’s mental health. They will gain a better understanding of the differences between people, which they will then embrace, rather than fear.

 

Q: From your experience, are children in the UK interested in events taking place around the world or in the lives of people in other countries?

We believe that children in the UK are incredibly engaged and interested in the lives of people in other countries.

Thousands of children have taken part in Outright, which allows them to learn about important global issues in a fun and engaging way, and ensures their voices are heard by key political decision-makers. Children have also worked on our family reunion campaign, which saw them championing for the rights of refugees to be reunited with family members in the UK. As well as lobbying for the Safe Schools Declaration, which was endorsed by the Government. It really demonstrates the power of children’s voices to create change.

Our work in schools across the country never fails to show that children are incredibly engaged and keen to learn about other people’s lives from around the world.

 

Q: How aware do you think children in the UK are about global issues?

From my perspective, centennials are incredibly socially conscious and I think there is always an eagerness for children to learn more about children who live in different countries. However, it is often the case that a child’s awareness is reflective of whether they are taught about international issues at school or at home.

Through Unicef’s Rights Respecting Schools Award, we work with schools up and down the country to ensure that children are aware of their human rights. Our teaching resources are full to the brim of stories about children from around the world and one of the main areas of impact of this work is the increase in children and young people’s support for global justice. Our Rights Respecting Schools regularly tell us that by linking their curriculum to global learning they have increased the levels of pupil engagement.

I would urge all schools to make sure their students are taught about their rights to ensure that they leave education as global citizens.

 

Q: Are there any examples of TV or online content that you think has been successful in engaging children in the UK – and if so, why?

Thankfully, there is some brilliant content, which both engages and represents children. First News is an excellent example, with over 2.2 million readers each week, they produce articles using child- friendly language to explain complex issues. For instance, we recently worked with them on a Special Report about the Yemen conflict.

During Soccer Aid for Unicef in 2018, we also worked with First News to send Kendra, one of their young reporters and a pupil at a Rights Respecting School, to Lesotho to report on Unicef’s education work there. It was brilliant to see Kendra engaging with school children in Lesotho and bringing their voices to life in the UK through her fantastic reporting. I am always incredibly proud of our work with First News and hope to do more media work with publications which both represent and engage children in 2019.

 

Q: In your opinion what should the media be doing to increase the engagement of children in the UK with the wider world?

While the BBC have been leading the way with children’s news for decades thanks to Newsround, last year it was brilliant to hear about Sky News commissioning Fresh Start Media to produce FYI, a weekly children’s news show. Not only is it informative, but by having child presenters they are putting young people right at the forefront of news reporting.

We have heard repeatedly that centennials are incredibly politically motivated, therefore, more broadcasters should consider making informative programmes which engage and represent young people. In the age of ‘fake news’ it is important that children can rely on a number of trusted sources to educate them about world issues.

 

Q: How important is this issue for Unicef?

At Unicef, it is a vital part of our core mission to uphold the rights of every child. Therefore, it is incredibly important for us that every child has a right to access reliable information, have a say in decisions that affect them and to have a quality education. A vital part of upholding those rights is ensuring that children can learn about international issues and understand their capacity to bring about positive change in the world.

 


IBT’s new research report, The Challenge of Children’s TV, looks at how children see the world, where they get their information from and how new media content can be more effectively targeted at children to engage them with what is happening in the wider world.

Download Report

Put Down Your Flags: Why consolidation is key to better aid delivery

by Simon O’Connell, Mercy Corps Executive Director

South Sudan is host to a myriad of international NGOs. The world’s newest country is in a state of protracted crisis. A combination of long-running conflict, a weak economy and drought has driven 3.7 million South Sudanese from their homes and left seven million people in need of aid.

In response, a lot of organisations are trying to help – often under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances. Alongside 214 national non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the South Sudan NGO Forum includes 115 international NGOs. My organisation, Mercy Corps, is one of them.

There is little doubt that these NGOs provide vital assistance in a country affected by long-term conflict and food insecurity that last year resulted in famine. The aid delivered by NGOs is, literally, life-saving. But, is the NGO sector structured in the best way possible to have maximum impact?

Ensuring large scale, lasting impact in fragile and volatile places like South Sudan comes with significant challenges. There are only 200 miles of paved road across the country, and much NGO work is reliant on air transportation. Risks to both people and resources are high; logistics are complex; security assessments and protection are time-consuming and difficult. All of this makes working here extremely expensive.

Whilst extensive coordination and information sharing does occur, there are over 115 different international agencies in South Sudan, each taking on the individual management responsibilities and costs of operating in this highly fragile environment. With humanitarian needs in South Sudan, and across dozens more countries around the world today, at almost unprecedented levels, more needs to be done by international agencies to join forces to reduce duplication and improve aid delivery and efficiency.

The large number of organisations can also affect the quality of aid delivery. Recipients of international assistance are sometimes left bewildered and frustrated by the number of different agencies entering and leaving their lives.

 

Why are there so many international agencies?

Each individual NGO has its own existential imperatives. Each was founded with its own particular mandate. Each has to raise money and to do that, each needs to be visible. Intentionally or not, this puts NGOs in competition with each other – for exposure, supporters and, ultimately, money. Each NGO needs to fly its flag (and frequently those of its funders) in places like South Sudan, because their visibility is central to their ability to raise the money they need. This perceived competition between agencies and a focus on bolstering brands and identities also affects trust, with negative stories about NGOs often linked to the crowded NGO landscape. With the media central to the public perception of aid organisations, the effects of these stories add up, with only 46% of people in the UK viewing NGOs as trustworthy.

Yet, in today’s world of extensive humanitarian need and pockets of deep, protracted fragility, NGOs still have a crucial role to play. Globally there are an estimated 10 million NGOs of one kind or another. They have contributed to extraordinary progress in recent decades, with both extreme poverty and under-5 mortality falling dramatically. But two billion people still live in places affected by instability, conflict and violence. There are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people – the highest number on record. Climate change is an increasingly active and urgent reality. With such complex issues and widespread needs, now is not the time to reduce aid budgets or commitments to addressing the root causes of poverty and displacement. It’s time to take concrete steps to improving how aid is delivered.

A key part of the answer of how to do this is through some consolidation of the international NGO sector – to improve efficiency, diminish duplication and ultimately be better for the recipients of their assistance.

 

Why not just better coordination?

Tremendous efforts have been made over many years to improve the way NGOs work with each other, with UN agencies, with governments and others: joint needs assessments, clusters, pooled funds, Humanitarian Country Teams, the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, the professionalisation of humanitarianism, the idea of ‘humanitarian passports’ – the list of initiatives to improve coordination in the humanitarian sector is long.

NGOs have demonstrated a significant ability to work together, for example the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies – now the Start Network – that took responsibility for a whole chunk of the UK’s humanitarian funding and has gone on to deliver extremely efficient, rapid and successful responses. The Start Network continues to push the boundaries of cooperation in the sector, while NGOs have also played their part in the Grand Bargain – a major set of commitments agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, outlining increased cooperation in a range of ways.

These initiatives show the desire of organisations to work better together, but cooperation itself comes at a cost, with large amounts of time and resources spent on initiatives to improve NGO coordination.

There will also always be a limit to how efficiently hundreds of different organisations are able to work with each other. Each of those organisations still has to carry, to some extent, the cost of their own logistics, security, assessments, and information gathering. NGOs remain independent organisations with their own identities, responsibilities and costs.

 

Consolidation – a solution to greater scale, impact and value for money

The idea of consolidation in the NGO sector has generally been controversial, evoking an image of predatory capitalism that is anathema to many in the sector. Whilst occasional consolidation between NGOs has occurred, this has invariably been driven by financial imperatives. Instead of NGO mergers happening only when organisations are in a state of financial stress, they should be incentivised to merge voluntarily – simultaneously reducing operating costs, inefficiencies and confusion for those on the receiving end of aid. By reducing the number of NGOs, efforts to improve cooperation and coordination, including in areas like safeguarding, would become easier.

That does not mean we should eradicate the diversity that is in many ways the NGO sector’s greatest strength. There’s a tremendous need for innovation and nimbleness in the aid and development sector; often more present within smaller organisations. Everywhere is different, and it is impossible to have cookie-cutter approaches that apply equally well in Yemen as they do in Mali – or indeed here domestically in the UK. I am not advocating that aid is done solely by a small number of mega agencies, and international NGOs need to continue to up their game to increase public trust. They must continue to demonstrate efficiency, and increase transparency and accountability. They must also prioritise supporting and strengthening local and national aid providers.

Locally-led, less bureaucratic structures and systems are essential, and this is where local and national NGOs tend to excel. They often have a particular geographical or operational niche that brings something unique. At the international level, however, there are too many organisations duplicating each other’s work and needlessly competing with each other. While each of the 214 local and national organisations in the South Sudan NGO Forum may be offering something distinctive, I simply don’t believe that it is necessary for 115 international organisations to be there. Instead, a smaller number of international agencies should articulate how they work with local organisations to deliver for crisis-affected people.

 

How to get it done

Consolidating the international NGO sector will require incentives that outweigh the existing motivations of competing for visibility, profile, influence and funds. Donors can play a role here.

Institutional donors like DFID and USAID have already shown repeatedly that they are willing to fund initiatives that enhance collaboration, as examples like their Humanitarian Grand Challenge illustrate. Now, they need to go one step further. I call upon donors – both governmental and private – to establish a ‘Consolidation Initiative’ for international agencies willing to join together permanently. This would require some one-off costs, but would make long-term sense against the ongoing cost of coordination.

Beyond funding, governments and influential stakeholders should commit to opening their doors for conversation with NGOs that show a willingness to consolidate. Access to government representatives is valuable for NGOs as they seek to influence on behalf of the people they serve. Committing to increasing such access would provide a further incentive for consolidation.

Ultimately, though, it is up to NGOs to make the running on this issue. I call on my fellow NGO peers and those in the international aid and development community to join me in exploring how consolidation might be achieved, gathering evidence for the best approaches to take, and committing to generating efficiencies that will deepen the impact of our work at this critically important time.

Consolidation would go beyond the perpetual incentivisation of cooperation. It would produce a structural change that would improve how the NGO sector functions permanently. It would boost trust in NGOs by showing sincerity around improving efficiency rather than competing for exposure. It would elevate the role of local and national NGOs, as the main source of diversity and delivery in the system. Most importantly, it would improve the assistance provided by NGOs for people affected by poverty and crisis. With the ongoing question of how to engage with the world, the consolidation of international NGOs could be a core part of the answer.

 

A version of this blog originally appeared in Third Sector and has since been updated.

You can follow Simon on Twitter @sioconnell1

How ready are journalists to cover the big humanitarian stories?

An opinion piece by Kate Wright, co-author of The State of Humanitarian Journalism

Should Save the Children play a key role in setting up a new worldwide register of suspected sex offenders, whilst being investigated by the charities Commission for its own failure to deal with allegations of sexual misconduct? Are feminist whistle-blowers being marginalised from debates about how sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation are tackled? Will the steps suggested at DFID’s recent Safeguarding Summit actually work?

Whilst these internal rows grind on, the suffering of others grows much, much worse. The UN has warned that in Yemen the worst famine in a hundred years is imminent, if Saudi’s blockade does not cease. But Yemen is not an isolated case: 80% of the world’s humanitarian needs are already driven by conflict.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report saying that we have only a few years to ward off catastrophic levels of global warming. If we don’t cut carbon emissions drastically, there will be far more droughts, hurricanes and floods. These will hit the poorest hardest: feeding a vicious cycle of fragility, competition over resources, and conflict. Little has improved, it seems, since the first World Humanitarian Summit was held two years ago.

If we are to respond to these issues effectively, we need to have information about what’s going on. Policy-makers and other audiences need to understand the causes of the issues, and the range of solutions on offer. So the question is: how ready are journalists to cover what is coming?

 

Only a few news outlets regularly report on humanitarian issues

In our industry report, The State of Humanitarian Journalism, we explain some of the key results of a global, four year research project. The main finding is that only a very small number of news outlets produce regular, original reporting of humanitarian issues. With the exception of The Washington Post, commercial news outlets do not report on humanitarian issues outside of ‘emergencies’. Instead, the funding for humanitarian reporting is largely concentrated in the hands of two sets of powerful actors: states and private foundations.

State-funded international broadcasters, including BBC World Service, Al Jazeera English, CGTN and Voice of America, aren’t as limited by financial concerns as commercial news organisations. But what they can report may be constrained by overt censorship, diplomatic sensitivities or fierce arguments between states, as happened during the blockade of Qatar. Even when states do not directly interfere in the day-to-day running of these news outlets, their strategic priorities tend to shape the geographic spread of reporters, if not actual editorial content.

The other major group of funders are private foundations, which support small, specialist news outlets, like IRIN and the humanitarian news vertical at Thomson Reuters Foundation, as well as blogs like Humanosphere. These foundations have been established by businesses and entrepreneurs, the most prominent of which is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But such forms of funding are unsustainable as we foundations usually provide ‘start-up’ funding, rather than regular running costs. They also tend to invest in humanitarian reporting as a short-term means of delivering other kinds of socio-economic ‘impact’, rather than a worthwhile goal in and of itself. For these reasons, Humanosphere closed in June 2017, and News Deeply had to make deep cuts to its services in September 2018.

 

Some good news – research shows that audiences are interested

There are two bits of cheering news. The first is that humanitarian reporting is much more varied than many had previously thought. News outlets differ significantly from one another, and there are still important ‘gaps’ which those interested in this work could move forward to fill, including gender reporting and investigative journalism. The second is that Western audiences are far more interested in humanitarian news than editors have hitherto believed. In the Aid Attitudes Tracker survey spanning audiences in 4 countries, ‘humanitarian disasters’ was actually found to be the most popular category of international news—not the least.

 

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Dear journalists, we want to be more honest with you. For starters, don’t call us charities

An opinion piece By Simon O’Connell, Executive Director, Mercy Corps.

Yumbe is about as far north and west in Uganda as it is possible to go. A dozen years ago I worked in this part of Africa, and I went back there recently. Much has changed. Four years of civil war in neighbouring South Sudan has created two million refugees, half of whom have crossed into Uganda. They are trying to rebuild their lives among Ugandan communities that are themselves struggling against poverty.

But where you might expect to see strife, we are seeing how the combination of South Sudanese and Ugandans is sparking enterprise and beginning to drive growth. Spending and investment by refugees is supporting more businesses, and the increased economic activity is bringing opportunities to a part of Uganda that was previously remote and cut off from significant markets.

To facilitate this, organisations like mine, Mercy Corps, are promoting land sharing between refugees and host communities, subsidising seed purchases from local agro-dealers, improving agro-dealers’ ability to access quality seeds from national companies, and working to attract produce trading companies to the area. We are working with the private sector, local government and other aid organisations to support not just individual people, but the market systems on which they rely and can build for the future.

Elsewhere around the world, we have run reinsurance programmes, set up dozens of micro-finance initiatives, established the first tech start-up incubator and accelerator in Gaza, and formed a public private partnership to provide a water system for over a million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. By working through markets, the scale of impact is enormous.

 

Don’t call us a charity

But we have a problem: traditionally, our work has been labelled ‘charity’, a word that means ‘an organisation set up to provide help and raise money for those in need’ or ‘the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need’. It is a word that has also become synonymous with emergency relief and ‘handouts’.

In Yumbe and elsewhere, though, Mercy Corps and others are engaged in intricate social and economic activity to help deliver lasting change. To describe this work as ‘charity’ doesn’t really cut it. But, we largely have ourselves to blame. Our ability to communicate what we do has been found wanting. When it comes to aid, we think that the public and politicians have little appetite for complexity or potential failures. So we portray ourselves as simple ‘charities’ – raising money to give to the needy – not the complicated agents of social change that we actually aspire to be.

This has consequences for the relationship between aid agencies and the media – a relationship that has increasingly resembled a battlefield. Few things set journalists going like the scent of inconsistency and hypocrisy – and by presenting ourselves as we have, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have made themselves a target. In turn, we have responded to media attacks by becoming increasingly wary and defensive.

There are other consequences, too. The Edelman Trust Barometer – a survey of more than 33,000 respondents – earlier this year found that NGOs are viewed negatively or neutrally in 21 of the 28 countries surveyed. In the UK, trust in NGOs stood at only 46%. Negative stories about aid continue to eat away at how our sector is perceived.

This should come as no surprise. If we present ourselves as ‘charities’, it is little wonder the media criticise us and people mistrust us when they see us doing things they don’t expect. If we want to regain trust we need to communicate better what we do, and what the work of modern NGOs actually involves. But we can’t do that without the media. It is through the media that the world is represented and our role in helping to shape it. We in the NGO sector need to find a way to work with the media without metaphorically coming to blows.

In a decline in trust, NGOs and the media have some common ground. The Edelman Trust Barometer also found that media are trusted less than both businesses and government, the first time that has happened in the survey’s 18-year history. This is mostly driven by the growth of ‘fake news’ and the public’s acknowledgement that they find it difficult to tell fact from fiction. Within this general crisis of trust, the media are suffering too.

 

A new relationship between the media and NGOs

So, is it time to take a different view of the relationship between NGOs and the media? Instead of frequently behaving as if we are on opposite sides, we could instead view ourselves as mutually supportive – both important parts of a functioning democratic society. A strong and independent press is an essential counterbalance to government and the private sector. So is a range of non-governmental organisations, backed up by a commitment to freedom of speech. Between us, NGOs and the media are vital for building social capital, trust and shared values that help hold society together.

If we could see the relationship between aid agencies and the media in that way, some real changes might be possible. Organisations like mine should do more to avoid presenting ourselves simplistically as ‘charities’, but instead take responsibility for representing the complexity of the challenges we seek to solve and the diversity of our work. No-one knows better than we do that the aid sector is not perfect. We should commit to increased transparency in explaining the realities of what we do.

In turn, more media organisations should stop viewing aid agencies simply as a target for exposing hypocrisy and scandal. That does not mean the media should stop looking critically at what aid agencies are doing but, with the straw man of ‘simple charity’ removed, they should commit to exploring the realities of aid work objectively.

If we can realise this shift in thinking not only would it benefit communities here in the UK and abroad. It would also go some way to addressing our common problem – by restoring trust in all of us.

An edited version of this piece first appeared on Thomson Reuters News

Follow Simon on Twitter at @sioconnell1

Find out more about Mercy Corps’ work promoting land sharing between refugees and host communities (PDF)