We have been reading the recent coverage of the Radi-Aid Awards, which challenge aid groups to shift away from stereotypes about people living in poverty. It is a complex area, and a great one to open up debate about: there’s huge value in moving away from the vision of helpless beneficiaries awaiting salvation, and we have talked many times about the dangers of reinforcing a sense of hopelessness for donors. But some of these damning judgments of the DEC and Comic Relief comms feel very one-sided – so, we thought, worthy of some further exploration.
The DEC films first: given the urgency of the issues they are trying to raise money for, and the low levels of public engagement with the Yemen crisis in particular, it feels harsh to criticise their fundraising efforts for emphasising the desperate need of the current situation. We know that for immediate-term asks in crises like this, more emotive pleas are the most effective way to raise much needed funds. The War Child ‘Batman’ film – used as a contrast here – is clearly a more creative and positive vision of the plight of a refugee child. But we doubt it would be nearly as effective as the DEC film in short-term fundraising. Would using local voices feel more balanced than seeing Tom Hardy presenting the story? Maybe. But presumably evidence has shown that the use of celebrities is the most effective way to cut through.
Comic Relief has a very different dynamic, with a focus on longer term issues and room to tell a more nuanced story. So we agree that there is more that could be done here to upweight the voice of the people affected by the issues, and to move away from ‘white saviour’ stereotypes. But Comic Relief is a hugely important influence for more charity and aid-cynical audiences, due to the way it tells these stories. In the focus groups we conduct with these challenging targets – from Daily Mail reading retirees to anti-establishment millennials – we constantly hear Comic Relief cited for the powerful, emotive story-telling that connects “charity begins at home” audiences with the challenges faced by distant individuals and communities. The use of familiar celebrities is an important way to bridge the empathy gap that often exists, and they also help to reinforce a powerful social norm around helping people in need wherever they may be living.
So Comic Relief is easy to criticise, and there may well be better, more nuanced ways of telling these stories given the opportunity for longer form content. But there is undoubtedly huge value in what Comic Relief do to challenge the rational or ideological objections to international development that are held by a growing proportion of the UK population.
As stated at the start, it is such a difficult challenge for the sector to navigate: balancing immediate imperatives of fundraising with the need to create a more nuanced, hopeful story in the longer term. Can these be reconciled? What we have seen time and again in research is the desire from people to see a sense of progress and possibility, even within starker films such as DEC appeals. At least hinting within these that progress can or has been made will be important if we are ever going to reverse the increasing tides of hopelessness.
And, wherever possible, with the public becoming increasingly cynical about the impact of international development work, and increasingly despairing about the state of the world, it is ever more important that we tell stories of progress and positive long-term change alongside the more urgent appeals for ongoing help. These could be about individuals whose lives have been transformed thanks to a charity’s work (and who can be presented with a greater sense of personal agency), about the scale of impact already achieved, or about longer-term developments that means these crises are becoming less frequent. This is vital if we are to avoid turning people off international development altogether, and re-engage audiences with its successes.