Caring in Crisis

A one-day colloquium ‘Caring in Crisis?’ sponsored by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research was held on Saturday 7 June. The event marked the completion of a three-year, interdisciplinary research project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on NGOs’ production of and the UK public responses to messages about humanitarian crises and international development.

The projects’ lead researchers Dr Bruna Seu (Birkbeck) and Dr Shani Orgad from the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, presented the key findings. Their presentations were followed by panel discussions with academics and NGO practitioners, including Professor Sonia Livingstone of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, Professor Paul Hoggett (UWE), Glen Tarman (Action Against Hunger), Professor Kate Nash (Goldsmiths College), Professor Mark Levine (University of Exeter), Brendan Gromley (CDAC Network) and Paul Vangas (Oxfam). The conference concluded with a keynote from the renowned moral philosopher Professor Peter Singer  (Princeton University).

The research shows that the UK public is emotionally responsive to humanitarian issues but fatigued and disillusioned. Although members of the UK public give generously to one-off appeals for natural disasters, they struggle to maintain an on-going and meaningful connectedness with humanitarian and international development issues.

Because of financial pressure and increased competition within the field, NGOs communications have become ever more geared towards raising funds.  NGOs conceive of the UK public primarily as monetary donors and only secondarily as potential ‘supporters’ or ‘followers’ of their causes and ideas.

This predominantly fundraising-driven approach is proving detrimental. With the exception of humanitarian emergencies, the public is expressing widespread distrust, fatigue and resentment to being targeted as monetary donors. They feel dehumanised and manipulated. Crucially, as soon as NGO communications are perceived as advertising and money-seeking, the public disconnects from the humanitarian message.

The research argues that if NGOs seek to build a sustainable relationship between the public, their ‘beneficiaries’ and their organisations, that can develop and deepen over time, it is essential that they revisit their view of the public, and predicate it on understanding of and respect for the psychosocial complexities of the public’s responses. The research recommends that NGO seek new ways to strengthen a long-term and two-way relationship with the UK public, in which monetary transaction is an important, but not an exclusive or, necessarily, always primary possible action for the public. Most NGOs are already taking steps in this direction, e.g. by utilizing social media, but these communications are hardly recognized by the public.

For further information, please visit the research project website.