Voices From the Field

Last year I interviewed the founder of a small charity in Uganda who fundraise for an orphanage. She said that as a privileged, educated, middle class woman how was it possible for her to ever understand what it must be like growing up as an orphan in her own country.

It made me think long and hard about humanitarian communication, and how the majority of the images we see of developing countries are via either NGOs or the media. I wondered to what extent I have personally been influenced by these images and how this has affected my perceptions of distant others.

NGOs have become one of the key messengers of knowledge about global poverty and their campaigns help us visualise the lives of distant others. John Berger explores imagery in his seminal text Ways of Seeing, saying that the way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe, and that the way we look at something is based on a set of personal assumptions. Over the years, the imagery used by NGOs has alternated between hope and guilt. Both strategies have received criticism from the media who, ironically, have been equally guilty of misrepresentation. Recently the photographs of emaciated children with flies in their eyes, otherwise known as ‘poverty porn’, have been replaced with positive imagery and success stories. This deliberately positive representation also has its critics and has been labelled as ‘sexy development’ or ‘post-humanitarian communication’. Can we really categorise an image as just positive or negative when everybody will have different interpretations of the same image. So what is the answer? It seems that NGOs have become the scapegoats in the war on poverty, they can’t do right for doing wrong. 

In August this year, it was announced that one in seven people on Earth used Facebook that day. The rapid growth of social media has transformed the way many people communicate. It has also changed the media, relationships, businesses and even toppled governments. Social media was soon embraced by NGOs as a way to engage with the public to create awareness and fundraise, but how has it changed the way that NGOs talk to their audiences? Let’s start with the negatives: the continued use of stereotypes and over simplification of stories.

KONY 2012 is the blatant example of how an NGO can get it so right, but so wrong.

We can’t deny that their hard-hitting, cinematic production and carefully planned seeding strategy targeting celebrities and key policymakers was effective. After all it was the fastest growing viral video of all time, until it was usurped by Gangnam Style. But on the flip side, the video was slated by the mainstream and alternative media as incorrect and insulting. As a result, the producer ended up having a nervous breakdown, Invisible Children folded one year later and ultimately Kony was never found and brought to justice. On the positive side there have been some brilliant social media campaigns such as The Most Shocking Day by Save the Children and Thea’s Wedding by Plan International that have told the stories of distant suffering through a western lens. Similarly, campaigns such as the #Icebucketchallenge and #Nonmakeupselfie were worldwide phenomena raising awareness and money for charities globally.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic global increase in the availability of information and communications technology (ICT), especially via mobile phones. 79% of the African population now have a mobile phone account.  

The marketing and communications departments of NGOs have embraced ICTs and social media as new sets of tools to inform their publics of distant suffering.

It’s a pretty fair assumption that the majority of NGO workers are passionate about the work they do. So why do they often get it so wrong? Communicating about poverty and inequality is possibly one of the most important jobs an NGO can do. Poverty is extremely complex and highly political and is so much more than access to resources. This has been highlighted by the Rusty and Golden Radiator Awards. 

Another issue is how many NGO workers have the experience to tell the stories of the recipients of aid? How can some of the people even start to begin to understand the lives of the people they are representing in their communications? This is why I was extremely pleased to hear about WaterAid’s new Voices from the Field (VFTF) programme. The initiative was designed to bring WaterAid’s supporters closer to their project work through a steady flow of up to date communications content. In 2012, WaterAid recruited specialised local staff in Nepal and Madagascar whose specific remit is to gather still and moving images of their work and ensures that images are captured with dignity and respect. This is a highly effective way of meeting the ever-increasing demand for supporter communications content that is distributed in a variety of materials.

Alison Gentleman who manages the initiatives in Madagascar and Ethiopia said; “What really gives the VFTF Officers the edge is their passion for the cause, their local knowledge and the fact that they speak the local language. Straight away, huge barriers are broken down and communities, partners and WaterAid staff are happy to share their stories. What these VFTF Officers have is a knowledge of different worlds. They can relate on a local and global level.

“They understand the communities they visit but they also understand the supporters on the other side of the world. This is a unique perspective and I think that is key to the programme’s success.”

In July 2015, I visited Antananarivo, Madagascar to spend three days with Ernest Randriarimalala in the field to see how his work is being used in campaigns back in the UK and in other overseas offices. Ernest spends approximately two weeks of every month in the field collecting information and imagery, the rest of the time is spent back in the office editing films in FinalCut Pro, uploading images to the data bank, captioning images, ensuring all the meta data is accurate and refining the language on case studies. Managing workloads is dependent on the stories needed by various departments. Sometimes stories are explicitly requested from the UK office and Ernest will ascertain specific needs via email or a Skype call. Other times stories will be collected organically and the case study details will be shared to staff across the world via Yammer, which WaterAid use for internal communications. 

In three years, Ernest has taken nearly 30,000 photos. He estimates that he collects two to three case studies for every trip and between 30 to 60 minutes of video rush footage. These images are used in WaterAid communications all over the world – in posters, websites, adverts, leaflets, newspapers and social media. One piece of footage captured on a GoPro camera has also been used in a TV campaign.  

By having a locally based communications officer, it overcomes many obstacles such as misinterpretation through translation, cultural differences and sensitivities to local political and economic issues.

It does not guarantee more authentic storytelling, but is more likely than the alternative of recruiting western photographers with little to no knowledge of the communities they are documenting. The VFTF programme is about building long term relationships with communities, documenting progress and creating case studies to inform donors that their fundraising efforts are making a big difference to people’s lives. 

Every year each of the VFTF officers is also invited to the UK for training and advocacy work. In June this year, Ernest spent three weeks in England. Part of this time was spent with colleagues in the London Head Office, but he also visited a fundraising ball in Durham organised by WaterAid supporters and attended the Glastonbury Festival where he gave a talk alongside the CEO of Oxfam. At these events he showed images of the toilets and access to clean water that have been installed, and more importantly the people who benefit, as a result of fundraising efforts. When he returns to the field, he is also able to tell beneficiaries about meeting the many people who have organised balls, raffles, cake sales, sponsored runs etc., all to help communities they are unlikely to ever visit nearly 10,000km away. Ernest said, “I’m not a professional public speaker, but people seemed to enjoy my talk as it was from the heart. I just told them what I have experienced with my own eyes. Like many of the beneficiaries of WaterAid’s work, I grew up without access to clean water or a toilet. I was often sick when I was young due to poor sanitation and missed lots of school. I am so happy when I meet all the people who fundraise and sign petitions to help people in my country. It is great to tell them about all the positive work we are doing and how we couldn’t do it without their help.”

The Voices from the Field programme is both innovative and inspirational. It is a relatively simple and cost effective solution to help overcome many of the criticisms of the imagery used in humanitarian communication. I’m not saying it is easy or that the role is without it’s flaws, but I applaud WaterAid for persisting with this initiative and to paraphrase one of their recent campaigns “Making it happen”. I hope that other NGOs around the world will see this programme as a model of good practice and implement their own voices from the field.