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Uitnodiging promotie

Rethinking the ‘hungry child’ in NGO campaigns

Recource Alliance, 17 januari 2016

Rusty Radiator resized

Figure 1. Rusty Radiator: still from the spoof video ‘Let’s save Africa! – Gone wrong’

Do we need ‘children with hunger bellies’ to raise funds for international aid? A recent analysis of British, Dutch and Flemish NGO-campaigns sheds new light on that question.

Development organisations bombard their audience with pictures of sad and hungry African children. At least, that is the assumption of many people in Europe. Critics argue that the use of explicit images of naked, hungry and helpless people is unethical: it robs people of their dignity and reinforces stereotypes. Proponents retort that such images are essential: hunger and disease is simply the reality in developing countries. It is important to confront the public with such images to mobilise funds for humanitarian action.

Does this debate sound familiar? It did to the participants of the framing workshop by Corine Aartman of Wilde Ganzen and myself during the IFC conference in October 2015. We showed a video of Trever Noah, the host of the Daily Show, who badinages ‘the Unicef fly’ in fundraising videos in one of his performances. Another well-known critic is Rusty Radiator, a Norwegian NGO that spoofs the incidence of sad looking African children in charity appeals (see figure 1). While such critics insist that NGOs should stop using such images, they forget to ask one simple question: is it true that NGOs bombard their audience with stereotypical ‘starving children’? Isn’t that something we need to know before questioning the pros and cons of such imagery? However, I noticed that nobody really knew the answer.

Measuring frames
With a team of research-assistants I took the acid test. We collected 284 NGO-advertisements from the UK, the Netherlands and Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. They had been published or broadcast in the mass media between 2011 and 2014[i]. First, we measured how many of them used a ‘victim frame’. Communications with a victim frame highlight the destitution and suffering of innocent people and emphasise the moral obligation of ‘the rich’ to help. Think, for example, of a picture of 2-year old African girl, lying alone on a dust road, and the call: ‘Give Mouna a mama’. Next, we investigated how many advertisements showed explicit images of hungry, sick, crying or starving people – the ‘pitiful’ depictions that cause most controversy in the debate.

We first analysed the Dutch material and the results surprised us. Sure enough, the victim frame was there, but not as much as we expected (see figure 2). The majority of the advertisements did not use it, but chose a different perspective such as ‘progress and development’ or ‘the fight for justice’. What’s more, explicit images of suffering people were rather rare (see figure 2). They were observed in about one out of seven campaigns. Self-evidently, we mostly saw them in emergency relief campaigns. But they were virtually absent in ‘ordinary’ advertisements that highlighted chronic poverty conditions.

Dark voice-over
That is: in the Netherlands. When we analysed the data from Flanders and the UK, we were surprised again. The Flemish results resembled those in the Netherlands. By contrast, the British results strongly deviated. Almost four out of five of the British campaigns adopted a victim frame, twice as much as the Dutch and Flemish. Moreover, one in three used explicit images of starving, sick, crying or otherwise visibly suffering people. That is two to three times as often as in the Netherlands and Flanders.

In conclusion, in the British material we saw plenty video-advertisements with a dramatic storyline, featuring a malnourished and distressed child, often alone in an African landscape, commented upon by a dark voice-over who called people to save its life. In the Dutch and Flemish material, we had to find such advertisements like a needle in a haystack.What can explain this difference? We asked this to the participants in our workshop. A number of suggestions were given. Perhaps it is the fiercer competition among NGOs? Perhaps the traditionally strong ‘charity culture’ in Britain plays a role. However, an easy answer was not available; as yet we are still searching for answers.

Nevertheless, the findings justify a rethink of the discussion about poverty imagery. First, they show that this debate is still valid in the UK, but obsolete in The Netherlands and Flanders. Second, the difference between countries challenge the assumption that ‘pitiful victim imagery’ is necessary to raise funds. If that were true, then the Dutch and Flemish NGOs would have to be terrible fundraisers.

I look forward to the continuation of the debate.

Figure 2

Figure 2. ‘Victim frame’ and ‘Pitiful images’ in NGO-campaigns from the UK, Flanders and the Netherlands (%)

[i] The material was collected through NGO-websites and YouTube-channels, newspapers, magazines and websites of advertising agencies. Part of it was sent or given by NGOs directly. The sample was not representative for all NGO-advertisements in these countries. Moreover, it was confined to advertisements in the mass media; the content of NGO-websites and newsletters was not assessed.

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