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Can aid agencies afford to be honest?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 4 Oct 2011 04:13 PM
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By Katie Nguyen

LONDON (AlertNet) - Journalist and press officer. It's not the happiest of relationships, often locked as we are in mutual need and mutual mistrust.  

So imagine how startling! outlandish! refreshing! it was to hear the head of World Vision's communications and campaigns team saying he was on the side of the media. Not only did he say that, he also made a point of saying it was not the job of a journalist to be "nice" to aid agencies.

This revelation emerged during a debate last week on a study of the UK public's understanding of aid, which had been commissioned by the British Red Cross.

Apparently most Brits want more information on how humanitarian aid is spent; 64 percent of them, for example, want to know more about the difficulties of providing disaster relief -- exactly the kind of thing that would make an NGO flak break out in a cold sweat.

After all, he or she is usually paid to ply the message of babies vaccinated, food delivered, shelters built, lives transformed - not a story of delays because of red tape, logistical nightmares, pressure from political parties and rebel armies, or corruption.

"We do it all the time - we self-edit. We don't allow other stories to get out," World Vision's Dominic Nutt said. "We know that a big donor will stop us talking about ... an oil company in Burma. All of us are scared of being thrown out of Ethiopia so none of us will stand up and say the government is responsible for starving children and others."

"We're not talking about the politics, we're not giving the stories to the media, we're not being adult about the complexities and the difficulties we face and our cock-ups, we're not doing that. We're not being honest," he told the audience of among others, Christian Aid, CAFOD and OCHA press officers.

A former journalist with 10 years' experience working for NGOs, Nutt admitted it was all very well wanting to present a more truthful picture of aid with all its problems, but that  didn't quite square with the way aid agencies continue to market their work - "two pounds a month will save the world".

"We are guilty of destroying the nuance that we so want, of destroying the complexity that we want in our media messaging. We can't have it both ways," Nutt said.

It's a shame there were no heads of fundraising, who seem to depend on simple messages, to chip in with their views on this.

"I think there is ... a current running through the media which means that aid agencies, particularly in the aftermath of a disaster, once the initial impact has subsidised, ... are fair game," remarked Andrew Hogg, news/campaigns editor at Christian Aid. And the reason they are fair game, he went on to explain, was a feeling that they had failed to live up to what their fundraising leaflets promise - an almost overnight cure - and so should be held to account for that.

OCHA's Mark Turner raised a good point about whether the general public actually wants the messy truth.

"I still get the impression that the simple tale of 'give a pound save a life, here's a child with a begging bowl' is still by far and away the most effective fundraising exercise and I'd be interested see if there's any research to be done in terms of complicated messages and fundraising -- whether this public that supposedly wants a greater, more complex understanding of the situation gives money when you present it in that complicated way," he said.

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