Tell a better story – tell the whole story

Individuals do not necessarily need to be defined by their relation to us. Instead they can be referred to, for example, as students, as teachers; people with meaningful lives outside of their connection to us. They are legitimate in their own right. In that, some common ground is found on which to build a partnership.


When effective communications and good development come together

‘‘Bob can’t do anything about his problems so we have to mobilise people that can change the world for him’’

The video above produced by Bond (2015) presents what we so often see in development campaigns in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Replacing the position so often taken up by an unnamed ‘third-world child’ or ‘powerless woman’ with a man lacking a date highlights a ridiculous narrative that has come to be accepted and moreover, expected.

The stories that development organisations tell through their communications is important. Of course it is the main passage through which support and donations are garnered. However, what’s more important than the money raised is how communications can begin to reduce the distance between donors and communities that charities work with, whilst affording agency and dignity to both parties and together working out how best to move forward.

Smaller NGOs are often greeted with caution when it comes to accountability as they have to deal with less scrutiny from the media compared to their larger counterparts. Despite this, as a smaller organisation, SeeBeyondBorders and others are free from being at the mercy of the terms and conditions stipulated by different stakeholders, especially high-profile donors, so have more flexibility in challenging the status-quo. We have a unique opportunity to move away from the normalised, repetitive narrative of passive poverty. There is no magic formula but there are some steps that can be taken…

The stories that we share should be whole – they should have a beginning, middle and end. This is the first step to challenging the sentiment that poverty is simply a way of life. If our audience understands how poverty is created and the social justice that we are seeking, they are more likely to support our efforts and have more of a nuanced, three-dimensional understanding of the communities we aim to serve.

Currently, many campaigns are missing the ‘beginning’: poverty simply exists. If poverty is continually looked upon as ordinary or natural, then it is difficult to address real causes and feasible solutions. However, when challenging this, we need to realise that we are seeking to undo a subconscious logic that has existed for as long as charity. Therefore we cannot expect thin, conscious messages to be able to contradict this sentiment sufficiently. Undeniably, emotive stories that evoke moral judgement drives action. This may be why ‘poverty porn’ has worked for so long to bring in donations. Support fuelled by pity is not something we are interested in – although surely the impassioned response we are hoping for would be much more effectively provoked if we discussed the underlying causes of poverty, such as a colonial legacy that ensures global power remains severely unequal? This issue is something that would require much more space than this blog post to dissect justly, however, a more honest approach to communications could be useful for both better development and communications. We shouldn’t assume our audience is afraid of the truth, or incapable of understanding it.

The ‘middle’ of the stories is the present – currently this is dominated by the reductive, over simplistic story discussed in the last post. The ‘end’ is more complicated than it first seems, as again there are no honest, simple answers for how we can end poverty. When discussing this, care needs to be taken to ensure it does not feel like a ‘spin’ to the audience. While communications showing progress is often well-received, acontextual hope has proven to be non-effective in harbouring support.  Last week, it was highlighted that support can decrease when quick fixes sold by organisations do not materialise.  What’s more, even if organisations manage to keep their support base, a lot of time and money must go into the re-education of supporters regarding the complexities of poverty and aid and then we risk losing supporters once more as they are likely to become confused and disappointed.

It’s all very well suggesting that the whole of a story needs to be told. But how do we go about this? Some important aspects include language used and the voice that is employed in communications campaigns or outputs. As much as possible, the communities we aim to support should give their own accounts in their own words as put forth by the European NGO Code of Conduct. NGOs should aim to provide a platform for these voices rather than speaking for, or becoming their voice.

When referring to the individuals we work with, Crack (2013) suggests that the term ‘beneficiary’ should be completely rescinded as it subtly declares that the organisations in question are inherently doing good. It favours their interests and interpretations and dwarfs the need to provide evidence that their activities are achieving favourable goals. Such assumed positivity supports neo-colonial rhetoric, reinforcing the superior, paternalistic position of the often Western NGO or charity. Different terms have been proposed by different groups, such as ‘‘primary stakeholder’’ to reflect to the organisation who they are most accountable to and who their legitimacy is dependent on. Another proposal has been ‘‘people in the world’s poorest places’’ (The Narrative Project, 2014) so not to stigmatise with the label of being naturally poor – poverty is something that can happen to anyone. However, this still makes poverty seem like a natural accident. Alternatively, individuals do not necessarily need to be defined by their relation to us. Instead as seen in SeeBeyondBorders’ work, they can be referred to, for example, as students, as teachers; people with meaningful lives outside of their connection to us. They are legitimate in their own right. Referring to members of the community that we serve in this way has the added benefit of making them relatable to potential supporters and donors. They too are teachers, they too are students. In that, some common ground is found on which to build a partnership.

This partnership is necessary for sustainable, effective engagement and allows for two-way learning to commence. It also shows that shared values exist, that though two groups of people may be geographically distant from one another they are not completely removed from one another. It has been suggested that communications that articulate shared values are likely to also increase support. Furthermore, an effective partnership means that all of the individual voices within a community are heard. Multiple stories need to be listened to and shared rather than extrapolating from a minority. Large groups of people are generally not homogenous and to depict the communities that we work with like this is to deprive them of their individuality and strengthens the division between donors and communities we aim to support.

Lastly, the images we utilise have immense power. Images are usually the means most employed by communications teams. We have seen how ‘poverty porn’ aims to shock the audience so the whole stories do not have to be told and questions are not raised. Whilst images that evoke pity tend to increase support, as previously highlighted, they do little to advance the thought that communities we seek to serve are active, independent equals with their own agency. In fact, although such images can increase support, it is a support that is fleeting that can dissipate as soon as the next ‘‘victim’’ emerges (Ignatief, 1998). Recent studies have put forth that the best images to use in communications show potential, progress and empowerment. Simple, intuitive measures should be taken to ensure images captured are done so with dignity and respect such as asking the subjects permission, ensuring eye contact with the camera and avoiding images that may fuel negative stereotypes and prejudice should be avoided.

Main image for blog post 32

Sreyno, who SeeBeyondBorders supports through the Conditional Cash Payment Program looks straight at the camera, completely aware of what is happening and happy to be there.

What is clear from the discussions in this series is that the road to ‘good’ development in any case, is not straightforward; the road to ‘good’ development with simultaneous ‘good’ communications even less so. At SeeBeyondBorders we try to reflect on everything we do and why we do it – this is not the end of the story. We are trying to incorporate these ideas into all of our own communications, so follow our progress and please do join the conversation by sharing your feedback…


Ignatieff, M. (1998). The Stories We Tell, Television and Humanitarian Aid. In Moore, J. (Ed.), Hard Choices. Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention, (pp.287-302). USA: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc.



Author: SeeBeyondBorders

SeeBeyondBorders provides children in Cambodia with access to quality teaching and learning at school. Our approach is through sustainable development, helping communities help themselves.

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