Simon O’Connell, Executive Director of Mercy Corps makes the case for a new relationship between NGOs and the media, one which starts by acknowledging the complexity of their work.
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.
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.
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.
Follow Simon on Twitter at @sioconnell1