MSc International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies student, Arbie Baguios, proposes a radical structural solution to bridging the knowledge gap between the aid sector and the public. 

Bond recently published an article that diagnosed a problem the international aid sector faces: the public’s declining trust, and increased scrutiny and suspicion. Their prescription, however, may be less acute: “Emotion is the way forward,” the article concludes, “ [it’s not] about fighting the rational with the rational; instead it’s about responding to feelings.”

I’m not a PR specialist, but I fear heeding this advice alone may take us towards the wrong direction in trying to resolve this problem of the public’s lack of trust.

The article’s conclusion is unconvincing: after all, isn’t appealing to emotion what the sector already does? Ever since Bono and Bob Geldof, international development and humanitarian actors have poured millions of pounds towards advertising and marketing campaigns that are meant to tug at the heartstrings. The aid industry has done this to such extreme and systemic extent that a whole area of scholarship has been devoted to it since the late 90s, which has given us the concepts of poverty porn and compassion fatigue.

The article does say that, instead of constantly conveying a sense of desperation and hopelessness, charities could capitalise on shared values and portray positive human-interest stories, which show that things are, in fact, improving. But the sector has already been doing that, too: a quick scan of big charities’ social media activity – for instance, from Save the ChildrenOxfamBritish Red Cross and Unicef UK – reveals this is nothing new.

The article outlines the questions most frequently asked by the ‘Daily Mail’ audience: “why are charity CEOs paid so much? Where is my money going? What difference is my cash making?” The article also explicitly acknowledges that, “for the most part, [the audience] had very little idea what these charities do.” Similarly, a Charity Commission report, which is quoted in the article, found that lack of accountability and transparency is the main cause of the public’s declining trust towards non-profit organisations.

The problem here is clear as day: there is big gap in the public’s knowledge about how the aid sector works. Yet, in response to people’s cry for their questions to be answered, the article’s recommendation is to, well, make them feel nice.

Here’s my take: now more than ever, what the aid industry needs is an explainer. The public suffers from information asymmetries, which feed their distrust, disincentivise them from donating or further engaging with the aid market, and, as the article rightly points out, make them feel like aid organisations are part of the “establishment.”

As people crave for more information about why and how we do the things we do, the solution is not to ignore them and keep them not clued in. Instead, the right response is to invite them closer into our world and help them understand our work. I would argue this fosters a stronger, deeper emotional connection – which the article says is what the public needs – than engaging them on a shallow level with more appeals to emotion.

Explaining things to people in a smart, compelling way works. This is what brought websites like Vox or journalists like Nate Silver (who uses data to make political commentary and prediction) to the mainstream; this is why Ted Talks or RSA Animate videos go viral; this is why even seemingly mundane videos like “Why cartoon characters wear gloves” or “The secret chord that makes Christmas music sound Christmassy” get thousands of views. There is an inherent demand from people for more information; what experts in any field should do is provide the supply.

The aid industry should not remain the bureaucratic blackbox that it currently is to the public: a crisis happens, people give money, a miracle occurs, and then lives are saved or changed. The aid industry needs to be understood.

This is an especially urgent mission in this day and age of alternative facts, fake news and deliberate disinformation, where some groups are poised to profit from the aid sector’s loss — including populist and far right groups who instrumentalise international aid to further their agenda. If NGOs do not supply the information that is demanded, people will turn to other sources – including to questionable blogs or websites that they can easily access online – that actively malign aid work and spread false information to their readers.

Reducing the information asymmetry between NGOs and the public could also be beneficial not just to our audience, but also to the population we serve and to our organisational performance. After all, experimental evidence suggests that an informed population — whether voters in an election in Brazil, or school communities in Uganda, or village members accessing healthcare in Sub-Saharan Africa — make better decisions and, therefore, improve organisational effectiveness and curb corruption.

To be sure, I’m not saying NGOs should not move away from negative imagery and towards a more positive portrayal of aid work. I fully agree with this. Although I would further argue that this could only be effective if we remove the comparative advantage of organisations who rely on the logic that negative portrayal, as evidence do suggest, can raise more money (which means they can do more work).

To this end, I propose a structural solution to this structural problem: the establishment of an international aid sector advertisement regulatory agency.

This will be an independent body that includes members of the Global North and South, and with representatives from key aid and media actors, and that sets out an agreed criteria for all NGO advertisements and marketing campaigns. The goal will be to finally eliminate the negative – and harmful – portrayal of affected populations, and to enforce a policy of positive imagery among aid organisations.

After all, society has already agreed to regulate – according to our collective, majoritarian morality – what can or cannot be broadcast on TV, radio and even the internet. This is why, for example, in the UK all ads are legally required to be “decent” and “socially responsible”; or why Instagram has banned nipples and Facebook insists their users must comply to community standards.

Following this, the aid sector, then, should also be able to enforce the broad consensus within its community: that the portrayal of people we’re trying to help in an undignified manner is not just harmful (to them and to our cause), but also morally unacceptable. Raising funds should not be a compelling enough objection; after all, what kind of ads do you think will condom companies put out if they can get away with anything?

The public’s trust on the aid sector is declining. Their questions – on CEO pay, aid effectiveness, and aid transparency, among other things – remain unanswered. They are seeking accountability and demanding information; but while the NGOs are reluctant to provide the supply to meet this demand, groups who are poised to benefit from the sectors’ loss are actively spreading disinformation.

Bond’s recommendation of moving away from negative imagery to positive ones to foster a stronger emotional connection to regain the public’s trust is good – but it may be ineffective without an ad regulatory agency, and on its own is not enough. What the sector ultimately needs is to invite the people closer to our world, and create a compelling but smart narrative on why and how we do the things we do.

Maybe when the public finally know how the aid sector actually works, they can once again give us not only their time and money but their invaluable trust.


Arbie Baguios (@arbiebaguios) is currently an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies postgrad at LSE. Prior to this he worked for the British Red Cross, Save the Children and Unicef UK in London and Southeast Asia. He runs the blog, This Humanitarian Life.

This article was first posted on thishumanitarianlife.wordpress.com.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.