‘All they want is my money.’ This is the most common rejoinder from participants in a UK nationwide study carried out between 2011 and 2014 by Birkbeck and LSE on public attitudes towards humanitarian and international development issues and responses to humanitarian communications.
The study found that we, the UK public, are emotionally responsive to humanitarian problems but we are also fatigued and disillusioned. Although people give generously to one-off appeals in response to natural disasters, they struggle with maintaining an on-going and meaningful connectedness with humanitarian and international development issues. This is a big problem for NGOs long-term work. Part of the problem is how humanitarian and international development crises are communicated to the public by NGOs. Financial pressure and increased competition within the field means that NGOs’ communications have become increasingly geared towards raising funds from the public via methods derived from advertisers and commercial retailers. Yet data shows that as soon as humanitarian communications are perceived as advertising the public switches off.
This predominantly fundraising-driven approach is proving detrimental. With the exception of humanitarian emergencies, the public is expressing widespread fatigue and resentment to being targeted solely as monetary donors. They resist engaging with the communications because they believe that ‘all they want is my money’. The public expect to and accept feeling sad and upset by humanitarian communications but too often they believe that NGOs manipulate their emotions in order to make them donate. We become desensitised and resentful towards NGOs, which leads us to further distance ourselves from humanitarian issues.
In order to decide what action we should take when faced with a humanitarian crisis of almost incomprehensible scale, such as the Syrian civil war, floods in the Philippines or the earthquake in Haiti, we need to be able to understand and contextualise the human suffering that they cause. NGOs can help us to do this by providing concise information which clearly sets out how our support can improve the lives of others. Rather than evoking an extreme emotional reaction, this information can be processed, managed and then used to consider what social responsibility we have towards these distant sufferers , as well as the humanitarian imperative to help and care for them.
Although the UK public respond overwhelmingly with compassion and empathy to the suffering of those affected by humanitarian crises, several factors prevent this emotional responsiveness from turning into action. When talking about helping distant sufferers, people think and respond as if the world were a small village and apply principles and practices of care they are familiar with. They want a relationship with those they are helping that is more ‘human’, close and embodied. They believe that sufferers ‘need more than money’, and overall doubt that their monetary donation will make any difference, particularly in the long term.
However, there is a clear discrepancy between the model offered by NGOs, and the one wished for by the public. This increases a sense of alienation between the public and distant sufferers as well as between the public and NGOs.
NGO communications and fundraising professionals in humanitarian and international development believe that the UK public trust them and view their work as valuable, but the Birkbeck/LSE study found that the public overall distrust and resent NGOs for behaving as a business.
If NGOs want a more sustainable relationship with the public, it is essential that they revisit their view of the public, to one predicated on understanding of and respect for the psychosocial complexities of the public’s responses – how we understand, process and emotionally respond to humanitarian causes, and what moral principles govern our responses.
It is urgent that both governmental and non-governmental organisations reflect on their current practices and make a concerted effort to foster and sustain public’s connectedness with humanitarian issues if they wish to create a civil society, where the public feels connected to and globally responsible to others. NGOS need to invest in rebuilding trust with the UK public, by complementing the interest and efforts geared at making the public donate, with a better understanding of how to evoke and enable appropriate emotions, foster understanding by providing manageable information, and offer possible actions which correspond with practices of care the public is familiar with.
NGOs can support connectedness between the public and humanitarian causes which is sustainable over time but it will require a reassessment of how they conceive of, interact with, and communicate to the public.