Is caring in crisis? No, but NGOs aren’t helping.

This article was written by Naveed Chaudhri, Head of Campaigns at Results UK. It was originally published on the Results UK blog.

Last week I attended a book launch – not something I’ve ever done before, but this one seemed worth going to. “Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs”, a new book by Irene Bruna Seu, Reader in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, and Shani Orgad, Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications, LSE, was a title bound to get my attention.

Speaking directly to my day job – helping grassroots supporters of international development share their passion with the public in order to make positive changes in the world – this was an event I had to go to. But with so much data already out there, and with so many reports on public engagement produced over the last few years, I wondered just what yet another set of speakers, another discussion, and another book could usefully add.

A top-drawer panel – Kirsty McNeill from Save the Children, Nicola Peckett from the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), Glen Tarman from Care International, and Paul Vanags from Oxfam, plus the book’s authors – strongly endorsed the view that the British public remains tremendously generous when disasters strike, and that human suffering touches us as deeply as ever. But beneath the surface, there’s a lot for NGOs to think about.

Here are my  top six takeaways from the discussions about how NGOs engage with the public in humanitarian crises and beyond.

1. Caring definitely isn’t in crisis, but…

Despite what some people think, “compassion fatigue” isn’t reducing public support for humanitarian responses, which remains very strong. Some recent DEC appeals have exceeded expectations. Responding to complex, politically driven and, for most people, obscure crises, the East Africa and Yemen appeals gained widespread public support. Faced with stories of human misery and an immediate chance to help, “the heart wins, and people give”. Media attacks on international aid, especially prevalent this year, don’t seem to have damped charitable giving, but there is a “looming crisis of trust” which could hurt public support in the longer-term. NGOs must help the public engage positively to help those in need, and to feel good about their role and act together to counter negative narratives of wasted aid and insularity.

2. It’s all about the money…oh no it’s not!

The challenge of finding meaningful ways to help others who are suffering in distant lands is a perennial one. On the one hand, NGOs would like the public to understand more about the causes of insecurity and suffering, and go beyond giving one-off donations; yet it’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to respond to an emotional appeal and then move on to deal with their own daily concerns, trusting NGOs to spend the money well. On the other hand, giving can be “an act of love” involving a lot of emotion, every bit as engaged as political activism, and sometimes more so (as clicktivism shows). Either way, there’s a need for NGOs to help people find appropriate ways (the metaphor of “journeys” crops up again and again) to engage a second and a third time, and learn more about the issues if they want to. Is giving money the only outlet for people’s empathy? No, but it mustn’t be looked down on. And of course there’s the critical issue of how ‘beneficiaries’ are depicted: there’s now solid evidence that showing distressing scenes of human misery can reduce people’s sense of agency and make them disconnect. The tactic may not even raise more money in the short term anyway.

3. Communities are galvanising – but NGOs aren’t

Back in 2005, the Make Poverty History campaign showed that you can build a big public movement and get real change if the politics are right. Collectively, we helped get $50 billion of debt written off, which fed into real gains for access to health and education in developing countries, and the lives of millions of people improved as a result. But it’s unlikely we’d want to replicate such a big brand-led movement today, as the world has moved on. Recent mobilisations channelling public concern have been far more organic; not leaderless or disorganised, but working perfectly well without a top-down structure. Successful movements allow people to do their own thing, based on a central idea or goal that fires their imagination, but doesn’t tell them what to do. Look at the way people came together around the Manchester terrorist attack, the Women’s Marches, Black Lives Matter, or the Refugees Welcome movement. Only in the latter have NGOs played any kind of a role, and it seems that we haven’t yet properly woken up to the reality of how people organise around causes today.

4. Humans connect – but digital doesn’t (so far, at least)

While digital communications play a strong part in helping people connect with causes (especially social media, where there are no barriers to entry), traditional community organising is once more coming to the fore. The things people actually want to do – marching, demonstrating, celebrating, or whatever – happen in their local communities, in the company of like-minded people. The idea that you can get people to act online seems more and more like a marketing idea that doesn’t meet people’s emotional need to connect and act. Is the digital marketing chapter coming to a close? You’ve got to wonder.

5. Find ways to engage people emotionally

Humans care about each other – in their own lives, and also when exposed to distant communities in crisis. Emotionally and in reality, we see people reacting in similar ways in both cases. International NGOs are uniquely placed to connect people to the issues we work on, but we don’t tend to communicate in ways which aim primarily to connect people emotionally. We are still far too fond of demonstrating truths through statistics, rather than telling inspiring stories of hope and change. And forget ‘myth busting’ – it’s not helpful to show people they are wrong and then tell them what to think. We should instead tell people stories of their successes, holding up a mirror up to the public to show them where they have been powerful agents of progress.

6. So, what’s the plan?

There’s a feeling that NGOs are faced with “a crisis of objectives, not of caring”. What should we be asking charity fundraisers and communicators to do? ‘Just’ raise money, or raise money and build long-public awareness and concern? This is a top level strategic question which needs answering very soon, at the most senior levels. The book’s authors spoke of “cognitive blocks to action”. NGOs have for years been giving out unreal and simplistic expectations of what overseas aid is and achieves – with the best of intentions – and have inadvertently reinforced notions of victimhood and dependency. How long can this carry on? Such fundraising practices may not yet be an immediate problem in terms of how much people give to charity, but in terms of movement building, we should definitely be concerned. Income is easy to measure, but the desire to engage isn’t. NGOs must find ways to do this.

NGOs can be amazing connectors, inspiring people to be the best they can be, expressing our common humanity and making the world a better place. We are needed as much as ever, and few other actors in society can do this – but we do need to change ourselves. The next few years could be a very exciting era for the international development sector, and if a ‘Global Britain’ is going to mean anything substantial, NGOs have a big role to play.

Check out this postcast about Caring in Crisis? with author Dr Bruna Seu, and Glen Tarman, Head of Global Advocacy at CARE International, who discuss some of the issues raised by the book (26min 8s).

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Motherhood in UK prisons: the devaluing of the maternal

On 8 June, Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies in collaboration with the MaMSIE research network (Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics), and with support from Clinks, hosted practitioners and academics to consider the challenges that face mothers in UK prisons. PhD student Claire Horn reports on the event.


It felt fitting that this discussion fell on the day of the election. In a time characterized by media amplification of partisan debate and the claims of our political leaders, this was an afternoon to consider the voices of women that often go unheard, and to reflect on an issue that requires collaboration across political divides. Opening the event, Lisa Baraitser (co-founder of MaMSIE, with Cambridge University’s Sigal Spigel), spoke of the importance of addressing the experiences of women who parent and are in prisons as a pressing feminist issue. Setting the tone for the discussion to come, she cited the need to reflect on what incarcerating mothers does to women, to children, and to communities.

Anne Fox, Chief Executive Officer of Clinks, chaired both of the afternoon’s panels and facilitated a focused and thoughtful dialogue. Fox raised an issue in her opening remarks that was reflected again and again throughout the afternoon: as a society, we undervalue and fail to critically consider motherhood. Given this lack of attention to motherhood in general, mothers in prison are in an especially unique situation. In a culture that demonises those who have offended, they are already stigmatized. As mothers, that stigma is amplified.

The first group of panelists delved into this double de-valuing of imprisoned mothers. Naomi Delap is the direct of Birth Companions, an organisation that provides physical and emotional support to pregnant women and mothers in UK prisons. Delap spoke of the lack of basic access to care for many pregnant women, and the necessity of codifying perinatal services and support. While Delap spoke of initiatives to de-carcerate pregnant women, and provide better community services she also illustrated the need for appropriate care for pregnant women who are currently imprisoned. The Birth Charter, compiled by Birth Companions, sets out specific and carefully considered recommendations.

Laura Abbott, the second speaker of the day, is undertaking doctoral work in health research at the University of Hertfordshire on the experience of being a pregnant woman in prison. She is also a volunteer at Birth Companions, and she spoke of the vital importance of midwifery support for imprisoned pregnant mothers. Abbott shared her work on interviewing mothers and staff in prisons, and through her presentation, represented the voices of mothers who spoke of a lack of access to basic care, and also of their sense that sentencing mothers acts as a punishment to their children.

Anastasia Chamberlen, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick (and past lecturer in Criminology at Birkbeck), discussed the gendered embodied experience of prison and punishment, noting the ways in which the impact of incarceration lingers in and on the body. Among other specifically gendered phenomena, she spoke of how for many women she interviewed, the period of imprisonment extended over what might otherwise have been mothering years.

In the panel that followed, Lucy Baldwin, Senior Lecturer in Community and Criminal Justice at De Montfort University and editor of the Mothering Justice collection, spoke of the emotional impact of incarceration. Baldwin described prison as an assault on a mother’s ability to do the work of mothering. She gave the powerful example of prison visit rules that do not allow for mothers to touch or hold their children during visitation hours. As Baldwin so aptly noted, this lack of contact would be viewed as neglect outside prison walls, yet inside, it is enforced.

Shona Minson, DPhil in Criminology at Oxford University, and author of the “Motherhood as Mitigation” report published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke further of the impact of maternal imprisonment on children. She described the ways in which having a mother in prison is linked to risks to children, and explained the phenomenon of “secondary criminalisation,” through which children experience the punishment and stigma of their mother’s penal sentences.

These five speakers forcefully articulated the potential impact on individual women, children, communities, and society more broadly when mothers are imprisoned. While these panelists are each engaged in the important work of addressing these issues, the concerns they raised also demonstrated the need for further support. Anne Fox closed out the event in a memorable way by asking the room (fully populated by researchers, students, activists, and practitioners) to consider questions for collaboration. Birkbeck is unique among universities in that many students and faculty are invested in producing research that bridges theory and practice. I am hopeful that this event will prompt further work in this vein, and that attendees will heed the call to communicate and collaborate.

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Merridale proposes historian as outsider in Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2017

This article was written by Jack Watling, a Hobsbawm scholar studying for his PhD at Birkbeck


Professor Eric Hobsbawm

What is the duty of the historian to society? That was the question taken up by Catherine Merridale in her Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture, held at Senate House, on Monday 22 May.

In answer Merridale reached into her own past, as a pioneering oral historian of the Soviet Union, its collapse, and the emergence of the new Russia. “This evening,” she said, “I appear before you in the guise of a witness.”

Merridale arrived in Russia in 1982, and entered an exciting and vibrant world in which she was unmistakably an outsider. Amidst the archives and late night arguments over art, literature, and politics, Merridale described the USSR as “red and brown.” Red pervaded public space, the ever-present colour of communist ideology; “brown was the stuff that leaked out when the snow thawed.”

Eventually the brown, oozing through the cracks of failing industries, the rot in the Moscow food warehouses, the bodies bearing testament to past atrocities, would see the whole edifice crumble, and fall away. In the heady days of the 1990s liberation was not conducive to reflection. “Everyone went shopping.” Merridale recalled a friend demanding to know “Ideology! What good is that? We are sick of it. We want a society like yours without an ideology.”

The idea that British society lacked ideology was not just wrong, but dangerous, Merridale argued, the assuredness of western economists who flooded into Russia in the 1990s was misplaced. They believed they had an answer to a country whose problems they barely attempted to understand. “Their intervention was a disaster.” What were they but ideological, working from assumptions? To be blind to one’s biases is invariably to fall victim to them.

It was a highly suitable subject for a lecture commemorating the late Eric Hobsbawm, described by Birkbeck’s Professor Joanna Bourke as one of “the most exciting and influential historians of the Twentieth Century.” Hobsbawm’s magisterial historical quartet, running from the French Revolution to the Cold War, set a benchmark for the integration of cultural, economic, and political history.  Yet Hobsbawm’s work was also an internal struggle between ideology and intellectual rigor. Hobsbawm was a dedicated Communist, and remained so long after it was fashionable. He was a true believer.

There can be no doubt that his political outlook shaped his work, and in a few cases confounded Hobsbawm’s commitment to the historical method. But Hobsbawm was both aware, and consciously challenged himself to confront his own assumptions. I saw this personally as an undergraduate when I was given his copy of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, a book banned in the Soviet Union, in which the renowned Soviet journalist contended that there was really very little to distinguish Communism from Fascism.

Merridale contends that today society is “drowning in the twittering present,” our communications rarely archived, our historical memory diminishing. We live in a society “that does not force us to confront ideas we find uncomfortable.” The historian then, who always stands as an outsider, peering into the past, ought similarly to force society to confront its own assumptions; to be aware of its ideological tendencies, and to struggle with them. History ought to make society self-conscious.

It was a compelling mission statement, which Merridale entrusted to the new generation of historians that the Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture aims to inspire. Associated with the lecture is the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund, which provides scholarships to support both Masters and PhD students.

Speaking for myself, such funds are transformative. When I finished my degree I was not in a financial position to fund a Master’s, and yet an MA was a prerequisite for a PhD. There is little government support for Master’s students. The Hobsbawm scholarship was therefore pivotal in my entering the academy. I am now two years into my PhD.

And I am not alone. “Honestly, it’s the only way,” said Sean, an aspiring early modernist who attended the lecture, and is hoping to apply to the Hobsbawm Memorial Fund to support a Master’s.

With Brexit on the horizon it is vital that Britain remains historically conscious. Russia, Merridale explained, has resurrected the Romanov’s, retreating into costume dramas to avoid confronting the contradictions that remain unresolved in Russia’s past. “They failed their own society at its crucial turning point.”

But far from suggesting a complacent superiority Merridale noted that “we Russians and Brits were trapped under the landslide of our victories” in the wake of the Second World War, and here in Britain there is also the tendency to seek comfort in a romantic fantasy of Kings and Queens, that never challenge us to ask who we are, or who we ought to be.

“It is the job of the outsider to be shocked,” Merridale said, as they explore, and like Socrates’ horsefly, to shock others.

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Policy and planning in organisations: why language matters

This post was contributed by Dr Lisa J. McEntee-Atalianis from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communciation. Dr McEntee-Atalianis is organising a conference on Language Policy and Planning in Multilingual Organisations: Exploring Language Regimes on Monday 3 July 2017.

un_language-policyIncreasing debate about the impact of international contact on language use has given rise to broadly binary accounts of its effects:  as a nurturing arena for multilingual diversity and creativity in communication practices; or as a stymieing force, leading to the dominance of linguae francae, particularly English. Themes of power, politics and economics, inter alia, play into analyses of some multilingual contexts, with calls for changes to language policy often made to combat inequity, injustice and/or to assess the ‘cost’ (financial or otherwise) of maintaining more than one language.

Traditionally the field of language policy and planning (LPP) has focused on national concerns, however in recent years research has also focussed on community, family and organisational scenarios. It is recognised that we must move beyond a nationalist paradigm to accommodate the networks, structures and flows apparent in post-national societies and inter/transnational contexts. As we move into ever-increasing global connectedness many of us are now interwoven in professional and personal networks which transcend the nation (virtually and physically), leading to complex patterns of interaction and the emergence of fluid linguistic repertoires. We are also subject to multiple layers of governance and influenced by the burgeoning economic and political might of transnational corporations and supranational organisations, which far exceed the influence of our local communities or states. How issues are debated and decisions made within these organisations and whether or not we are given a voice is of importance to us all. Language matters!

While there is still comparatively limited research on LPP in organisations, studies on supranational organisations (e.g. the EU and UN) and public administration of multilingual states (e.g. Canada, Switzerland, Belgium) have shown that they experience great difficulty in implementing and sustaining multilingual provision and this can lead to marked inefficiencies and inequities for those functioning within them and those affected by their work. This is an issue addressed in my own research on the work of the United Nations.

Current language regimes in some multilingual organisations no longer necessarily reflect the practices or needs of individuals who work within them or the people they are trying to reach. Moreover, there is demand for scientific modelling of established and newly emerging multilingual organisations to assess their effectiveness. For further developments in the field of LPP and for academics to be able to inform policy makers, concerted interdisciplinary collaboration is needed – not least the combined efforts of linguists, economists and political scientists. In a step towards this goal, I am convening a symposium with Michelle Gazzola (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) bringing together some of the leading scholars in the field of LPP who work across a range of disciplines (education; economics; linguistics; politics) and research sites.

We will consider the unique challenges faced by multilingual organisations working within different sectors (e.g. business; diplomacy; economics) and identify and evaluate the socio-economic and political effects of alternative ways of managing multilingual communication adopted by public administrations and organisations (e.g. political representativeness, democratic participation, social exclusion). By looking at different methods of investigating language regimes and the challenges faced by researchers who work in these areas we hope to reshape current priorities for LPP research and increase its impact on policy makers working in multilingual organisations.

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