Taking down the electric fence of NGO communications

“If you are a reportage animal and you want to report on poverty you have to get through the electric fence of NGOs. You sense danger and run away.”

Those were pretty damning words from BBC Producer Nick Fraser. He was speaking at an ODI-hosted event that explored some of the lessons learned during Why Poverty? and explaining why he had previously shied away from reporting on poverty.

If you missed it, Why Poverty? commissioned eight documentaries and 30 short films that explored the issue of poverty through the real stories of people living around the world, from America to Zanzibar. Last week’s thought-provoking event touched on a whole range of issues, from the BBC’s last minute decision to restrict broadcast to BBC4 to the need for Government, NGOs and broadcasters to work together more effectively to spark and encourage public debate about big issues.

But for me (somewhat obviously!) the most interesting conversations were around the brilliant storytelling that was the hallmark of the series. Nick used the example of Solar Mamas when describing how these were not issues films but documentaries that got you into people’s lives and then approached an issue through the protagonists. “Solar Mamas purports to be about solar but actually it’s about the grim circumstances of women. It could easily have been called the Stupidest Husband in the World.”

I can see some NGO folk shuddering at the prospect of such a trite programme title. The idea of explaining the complexities of gender hierarchies and the impact of participatory community development approaches with one person’s story simply doesn’t compute for some people. Too often communication teams lose out to the development thinkers and insights into the real change that’s happening to real people gets lost behind statistics and development speak. In other words, the electric fence goes up. But the need to find engaging ways to explain the complexity of development is something NGO storytellers need to take seriously.

The ODI’s Leni Wild, spoke about the findings of last year’s IPPR and ODI report, Understanding public attitudes to aid and development. The public are growing tired of the way development messages are presented. The repeated use of images of people living in need has created the impression that nothing has changed and they are questioning what has happened with money already donated. The stories that research participants responded to most keenly were those that explained progress and how change happened, even when that process was complex. The report suggests that “stories about how development actually happens may be more effective than campaigns just focused on inputs and outputs”.

If we’re moving to a place where there is a genuine appetite for a deeper understanding of how development happens, warts and all, then there is an even greater need for NGOs to use the stories of real people. A desire to understand the ‘how and why’ of development is not an open invitation for NGOs to liberally pepper their communications and fundraising materials with jargon. We will need people to tell us what has and is happening in their lives to explain complex issues to those who are interested, but not experts.

This is what the Why Poverty? films did so well; they ignored the language of development, ditched the baseline data and beat the impact statistics into the ground and introduced the world to people. Our natural human nosiness kicked in, we became absorbed in other people’s lives and along the way we learnt about the impact of poor infrastructure, failing health systems, sanitation, land grabbing, and much more.

Changing the way we tell the story of development will not be easy. Teams will have to work hard to understand each other’s perspective. We must earn the trust of the people telling us their stories and ensure it is an enriching experience for them. But if we’re going to continue to engage the public in development it’s hard work that has to happen. It’s time to take down the electric fence.

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