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NGOs, you must talk about corruption

Resource Alliance, 1 maart 2016

Ask an average person in Europe why developing countries are poor and I bet that ‘corruption’ is in the forefront of their mind.

In a Belgian survey, nearly 85% of the respondents thought that ‘corruption and bad governance’ were important causes of poverty[1]. Surveys in other European countries point in a similar direction: people almost instantly  associate developing countries with bad leadership.

This has a huge impact on their perceptions of development aid. In France, 66% of survey respondents thought that ‘most financial aid to developing countries is wasted’[2]. And in Britain, 60% agreed that ‘corruption in governments in poor countries makes it pointless donating money to reduce poverty’[3].

NGO’s are not to blame for this biased audience perception. The news media are. Over the past years, I investigated the framing of global poverty in newspaper articles from The UK, The Netherlands and Belgium. I found that over a quarter of these articles used a ‘bad governance frame’. Such frame explains poverty in terms of selfish dictators, local conflicts, corruption or failing governance in general. Hence, articles with a bad governance frame assert that the causes of poverty are internal to development countries and local governments are to blame. Even without explicitly talking about development aid, the audience easily arrives at the conclusion that most aid will end up in the pockets of greedy leaders.

Tarnished image
This perception of corruption should worry fundraisers of NGOs. First, because it hurts their image and credibility. Second, because it provides an easy excuse for people not to donate. Third, and most importantly, because it is not true. Sure, corruption is a huge issue and development projects are not immune to misuse of money. But the statement that most aid is wasted is simply unfounded. Reliable figures are hard to come by. But an estimate of six donor countries into how much money they had lost through corruption and fraud, arrived at no more than between 0.006 to 0.16 percent. Even if that was an underestimation by a factor 10, the loss would, on average, not be more than 8 percent[4].

Moreover, numerous examples show how aid is used to improve governance, restore justice, build institutions and empower local people to hold their leaders accountable. For example, donor aid has made a tremendous contribution to the post-genocide restorative justice system in Rwanda. In Mozambique, Ghana and Sierra Leone, aid helps community groups to oversee development budgets and planning. And in numerous countries, donor-sponsored community radio programmes broadcast about irregularities in public services.

Pink-Elephant-389x250Hence, I would expect NGOs to fiercely combat the perception of corruption and flaunt their successes. But instead, their answer to this media-bias is a deafening silence. Corruption is the elephant in the room. And after all, talking about an elephant means that you let people think about an elephant. Scary! Remember Nixon, who famously said ‘I’m not a crook’ during the Watergate scandal? It reminded everyone that he was a crook, even though he denied it. Hence, NGO’s belief that talking about corruption will just remind people that most donor money is wasted, no matter what they say. And that surely doesn’t serve a fundraising purpose.

The elephant grows bigger
That strategy is understandable but also one that is failing miserably. Over the years, the perceptions of wastage of aid money have only become stronger. The elephant has grown and it will not vanish by simply ignoring it. Perhaps NGOs hope that, somehow, the media will come to their senses and provide a more balanced portrayal of the ‘governance’ issue. Forget that. The media are particularly interested in things that go wrong.  In my study, I found that two out of three news stories about development issues had a negative connotation: they highlighted problems rather than positive developments. In news stories with a ‘bad governance’ frame, the share of negative stories was almost 85 percent. Not more than 6 percent of those stories mentioned positive developments or examples. Hence, the ‘governance’ narrative is overwhelmingly used in a negative context and barely ever countered in the news.

So how should the general public come to know that perceptions of wastage of aid money are grossly exaggerated? How should they learn that the reality about corruption is much more nuanced than the media want them to believe? They don’t read that in the papers. They don’t see it on TV. And they don’t hear it from you, development NGOs.

Talk about the elephant
NGOs have to overcome their fear and talk about the elephant in the room. They have to provide a counter-narrative about corruption and aid. On their own websites, on social media, in newspapers and on TV. Here are four guidelines to take action. First, acknowledge that corruption is a problem and that it worries you as much as it worries your audience. Don’t claim that it never happens in your organisation: the public is not stupid. Besides, it will backfire as soon as a clever journalist goes out to prove otherwise. Second, put the figures into perspective. Provide fair estimates, based on solid research, and debunk the statement that ‘most aid is wasted’.

Third, give context. Explain how corruption is linked to poverty and weak institutions. Involve the public in real life dilemma’s that go along with it. For example, should you shut down a successful school feeding project after discovering that a few percent of your money could not be accounted for? Fourth and final, give examples of how development aid is being used to combat corruption and improve institutions. Tell them, for example, how your organisation empowers local communities to monitor government spending.

Will that make the elephant disappear? Definitely not. But it might change its shape and size. And, ultimately, it might make it less venomous.

[1] Pulse, 2012. Algemene barometer draagvlak ontwikkelingssamenwerking

[2] BOND, 2015. UK Public Attitudes towards Development. Aid Attitude Tracker Summary

[3] InterMedia 2012. Building Support for International Development

[4] Foreign Affairs / Paul Farmer, 12 December 2013. Rethinking Foreign Aid

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