Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Being sold development at Christmas

By Spencer Henson

At this time of year more than any other, UK consumers are bombarded with efforts to sell them development. Buy a goat in Kenya for your loved one, spend a little extra on Christmas cards where a certain (usually undisclosed) portion goes to a charity working with poor people in the ‘developing world’, give a handicraft made by poor women in rural India, and so on. Fundraisers in international development NGOs recognise that such efforts are effective at getting UK consumers to part with their money. That is why they use them….especially during the ‘season of good will’. But what do they tell us about how ‘the person on the street’ relates to international development?

The recent book Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo reminded me of some research at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid-2000s. Students were given $5 and then showed one of two leaflets asking them to make a donation to Save the Children. The first leaflet provided factual information about the scale of famine in various countries of sub-Saharan Africa. The aim was to communicate the sheer magnitude of the food insecurity situation across the continent, and thus the imperative for people in the rich world ‘to give’. The second leaflet described a named person (“Rokia”, a seven-year old girl from Mali). The aim was to put across the level of hardship this individual was facing and the impact that a donation could make on such a person.

You can guess which of these two messages was most effective at getting students to donate. Unsurprisingly, the average donation to change Rokia’s life was more than double that from students who were offered the chance to ‘help the masses’. 

Various things may be at work here. Certainly, it is easy for people to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the millions in need ‘in Africa’. Perhaps more important, however, is the way in which we all tend to relate to individuals. That is why efforts to sell us development at Christmas often come with the smiling face of a boy or girl…..that YOU can help.

Much ‘good’ work’ may be funded from efforts to sell us development at Christmas. However, there are two critical problems with this model of engagement of international development NGOs with the public.
  • First, it is very much based on the notion of benevolence of the (powerful) rich towards the (powerless) poor. UK consumers can decide how to spend their money at Christmas whereas the poor have little money to spend on anything. Further, as a wealthy donor the consumer can decide who is ‘deserving’ of their charity, however they might judge this.
  • Second, and more importantly, efforts to sell development do little or nothing to challenge the very reasons that people are poor…and the need for benevolence by the rich in the first place. Thus, how is it that such global inequality exists, and what can be done about it? The act of buying a goat, a charity Christmas card or a handicraft fails to challenge the status quo. Some would even argue that buying development perpetuates the very systems that make people poor in the first place.


Anonymous said...

I think this blog raises some interesting points. There is a real tension between advocacy to tackle root causes of poverty and donations to programmes, e.g. through Christmas gifts. But the problem is, so many people are living in hunger and poverty right NOW that programme interventions are also needed. And the best ways to fund these are through campaigns which don't communicate the political obstacles to ending poverty. I think NGO engagement in development education and advocacy offers a powerful solution to this problem.

I would recommend the 'Finding Frames' report to those who are interested in exploring issues around how the UK public perceive global poverty, and what underlying values and psychological frames contribute to this:

Natasha Adams
Campaigns and Parliamentary Officer
Concern Worldwide

Dr Tom said...

Same goes for any charitable giving, I don't see that you have told us anything specific about this model of fund raising. Perhaps the sentimentality and transience of this mode of giving are more of a problem. And I don't understand in what sense donor choice and benevolence are a problem. Many people who give to charities also campaign for trade justice and more enduring and political development action, and many charities encourage this.

Liz A said...

Interesting blog. I've always hated Christmas in the UK - all that conspicuous consumerism and the feeling that people reckon it's ok to spend hundred of pounds on crap so long as a few quid is spent on an Oxfam christmas card. However, with respect, at least they do this - it's better than nothing. It's easy for "us" who work in the development industry to bemoan the average person on the street, but it's a little self-righteous, don't you think? After all, we are making a good living out of the perpetuation of other people's poverty and disempowerment. One could argue that buying a herd of goats for "Africa" does as much if not more good than sitting here writing about it!

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