Tackling the Aid and Development Images Minefield

Deborah Nesbitt, ACFID Communications & Media Adviser

26 Aug, 2016

In the 90s an infamous image of a starving, helpless child hunched over as a vulture looked on ready to claim it as prey sparked a furious debate within the aid community.

The photo captured a 1993 famine in the Sudan and remains one of the most disturbing and controversial images of our time. It simultaneously tells a story and raises myriad questions: What happened next? Did the photographer help the child? Is it fair for aid organisations to seek funding by depicting people as desperate and helpless?

A year ago, distressing shots of a tiny, drowned Syrian child dead on a Turkish beach saturated the world media. Aid organisations again asked: what is the role of outrage and fear in prompting governments to act and people to give? Is this the only way to motivate well-meaning people to give money?

Closer to home, in June Twitter triggered a new “poverty porn” media storm over images of children used by a South East Asia orphanage for an online fundraising campaign. Tweets reacting to and defending the images of young, dishevelled and grubby children, one labelled ‘sex worker’, again illustrated the ongoing, complex debate continuing within the aid community.

Ensuing media stories reported the [non-ACFID member] ngo claiming the images were in line with ACFID’s Code of Conduct guidelines on images and messaging. That was rejected by ACFID CEO Marc Purcell’s in a subsequent story.

ACFID’s self-regulating Code of Conduct stipulates that local people be portrayed “in a dignified, respectful manner … as equal partners in the development process”. ACFID’s Guidance on the Code’s application suggests not using images that manipulate a story to portray people in a pitiful way, but to also ensure images “honestly convey the context and complexity of the situations in which local people live”.

Still, it’s a tricky area, saturated with personal views, clouded by financial imperatives and the ease with which camera phones and social media can spread images and ideas fast, all underpinned with good intent – caring for people in urgent need and tackling poverty.

As ACFID Learning and Development (L&D) Coordinator Kate MacMaster explained, ever changing digital communication technologies have changed the way people give, with ngos moving away from the traditional child sponsorship approach to more direct giving. At the same time, savage government funding cuts over the past five years has increased financial pressures on aid ngos forcing them into competition with others for public donations.

“All of those things have really put pressure on the financial sustainability of organisations which has resulted in either changes in the way they market or fundraise, or changes in business models,” MacMaster said.

ACFID’s L&D team recognised the need to convene structured conversation for members on this complex issue. Such was the interest, the ‘Images and Messages’ workshops in Melbourne and Sydney this year attracted more than 100 participants from across the membership.

MacMaster said senior managers with organisational overview were encouraged to join the workshops “because what we’re finding is a difference in the imperatives of people who are the operational positions as opposed to those driving programs”.

A fundraiser may have certain targets to achieve and therefore a different frame of reference compared to a country program manager who might not necessarily be aware of, or understand the drivers behind fundraising. The two employees may have different ethical boundaries or guidelines for making decisions about, for instance, taking or using a photograph, whether consent was secured and the messages that go along with the photographs.

“So it’s really important from an organisational perspective to reflect on questions like: what is the ethical framework driving our use of this photograph or not? What are the no go zones? What isn’t appropriate on any level?” MacMaster said. “A very valuable, tangible output from the workshops was some clear direction around what those no-go zones are, and what criteria [ACFID members] could use.”

The workshops delivered other tangible outcomes designed to encourage members to take an ethical, organisation-wide approach to the decisions they make about the images and messages they use for fundraising. They have informed a five-yearly review of the Code and spawned a new ACFID Community of Practice (CoP) to ensure an informed debate on this ever-evolving issue continues.

Learn more about ACFID’s Code of Conduct here.

ACFID member staff can join the Images and Messages CoP via MYACFID. For help with log in details contact Chris Johnson

  • Deborah Nesbitt, ACFID Communications & Media Adviser
    Deborah Nesbitt, ACFID Communications & Media Adviser

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