A Global Village
Issue 3 » Global Health & Development

Reframing Support For Development

Matti Navellou, The Global Poverty Project

Extreme poverty isn’t a sexy subject. But it is one that affects 1.4 billion people today. The fact that 1.4 billion individuals, sharing our common humanity, with the same capacity as us to feel pain, hunger, love, and with the same aspirations and potential for greatness, currently live on less than $1.25 a day and lack access to basic opportunities such as clean water, health-care, education and food can seem overwhelmingly disheartening.

Seeing starving kids on TV adverts is depressing. It’s enough to make us want to switch off. It seems like nothing has changed since the days of Live Aid back in the early 1980s. But what if you knew that extreme poverty has halved since then, and that we could eradicate extreme poverty within a generation?

Guilt-inducing images of
starving kids undermine
longer-term support

Six years ago, 16 million people signed on to MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY getting behind the vision that seeing an end to extreme poverty was achievable. Yet, since then, momentum has stalled. People today feel powerless. They ask, “What has really changed since then? How can I make a difference?” They feel powerless because they don’t know what happened next. They don’t know what happened after their white arm-bands faded to yellow, and the Live8 concert tents had been packed up. This is the story of what can happen next and what we can do to move our understanding beyond starving children and sell-out concerts.

What Happened Next
In early 2010, leaders from NGOs and charities working on poverty in the UK were drawn together to talk about building support for development – to try and bridge the gap between public sympathy and effective public action in relation to extreme poverty, and ask why, out of the 16 million who’d signed up to MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY, only a small percentage were still actively involved in trying to put an end to poverty.

Research conducted by the Development Education Association (DEA) shows that real understanding of global poverty in the UK is very limited. Perceptions of aid and charity are dominated by the ‘Live Aid Legacy’ which perpetuates a patronising, almost colonial vision of magnanimous Western powers handing out aid to grateful developing countries. We desperately need to move beyond this, to an understanding of development which addresses and appreciates its complexity, and is based on a vision of a common humanity and interdependence.

Vicky, one of our supporters, managed to capture the public’s frustration with these issues when she said: “I’d love to help, but I’m confronted by the same images of starving children every year and am fed up of feeling guilty. I have no idea where my donations have gone or what progress has been made in this area. Why should I keep giving if it seems like nothing has changed? I just don’t feel like there is anything practical I can do to help.”

Vicky’s response highlights a number of issues: a lack of access to information on progress that has been made in international development; fatigue and apathy at the use of images of victimization by charities to elicit feelings of guilt for the purpose of increasing donations; and, finally, frustration about the little information available regarding what people can do to help beyond giving money.

Surely this points to a flagrant gap in the NGO sector in the UK? Why does the public not have access to this information? How can they turn existing sympathy into action when there is no increase in educational awareness of these issues?

Why the Guilt?
DFID have run public attitude surveys for over a decade and a recent report, Public Attitudes Towards Development, shows that the percentage of individuals that are very concerned about extreme poverty is currently at 21%, the lowest since 1999, after which levels of engagement have either been static or falling.

Falling support has led to a fundraising paradox for charities. Donations during the recession have fallen for some charities by up to fifteen percent, leading to intense pressure on fundraising departments to meet targets. Yet guilt-inducing images of starving kids, although a great fundraiser, undermine longer-term support and perpetuate a perverse and restrictive representation of aid. ‘Charity fatigue’ inevitably creeps in – these images become trapped in a frame of “aid” in the public mind, where aid becomes permanently linked with donations and guilt.

According to a recent paper by Bond, the UK membership organization for NGOs working in international development, most people interpret ‘aid’ as ‘donations to charities in response to disasters’ severely undermining the complex and multi-faceted nature of aid work. This points to an urgent need to shift the public understanding of ‘aid’ to something that includes an understanding of the progress that has been made in reaching aid targets.

Where are the Success Stories?
The irony of this situation is that great progress has been made in reducing extreme poverty and in reaching the Millennium Development Goal targets agreed upon in 2000. NGOs know that, for example, aid invested in educating women, infrastructure, microloans, free trade and export oriented growth work in helping reach these targets.

We know that maternal deaths through childbirth have decreased by about 35% since 1980. We know that whereas in 1982, 52% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty, that figure is down to 25% today. Yet, instead of being aware of this positive change, the general public hears about corruption, insurmountable natural disasters and the ongoing spread of HIV.

What we don’t hear about are the success stories. We don’t hear the fact that something as simple as building toilets for girls in schools in Western Tanzania can increase female attendance by 30%. That Rwanda, one of the world’s poorest countries, has had national health insurance for 11 years now, covering 92 percent of the nation at premiums of $2 a year enabling life expectancy to rise from 48 to 52 in spite of the ongoing spread of AIDS. That over the last 50 years South Korea has transformed from an aid recipient country to a bustling aid donor due to investment in education and infrastructure. That extreme poverty has dropped from 49% to 30% in Ghana thanks to policies implemented in 1992 that promoted economic growth and poverty alleviation through investment in infrastructure.

Rwanda has had national
health insurance for 11 years
now, covering 92% of the
nation at premiums of $2 a
year enabling life expectancy
to rise from 48 to 52

Around the world, during the past 50 years, we have seen a clear pattern of falling infant mortality, rising literacy, rising incomes, rising life expectancy and a falling number of people living in extreme poverty. These are the stories that should be at the forefront of public awareness.

What is the GPP Doing to Challenge This?
For the last year, the Global Poverty Project (GPP), in partnership with other UK NGOs, has been raising awareness of these issues, trying to shift British public attitudes towards development into a positive belief that practical actions can be taken by each and every one of us in our daily lives to contribute to putting an end to extreme poverty.

We have been travelling across the UK delivering an awareness-raising presentation called 1.4 Billion Reasons, named after the 1.4 billion people currently living on less than $1.25 a day. 1.4 Billion Reasons takes people through the issues surrounding extreme poverty, answering people’s questions on corruption, aid efficacy, trade barriers and the Millennium Development Goals. It gives people hope about what can be done: hope that is supported by facts on progress already made in the fight against extreme poverty.

We believe that education on issues of poverty and positive communication around the progress that has been made in poverty-reduction can kick-start deeper reflection and action on these issues. There are evidently still important challenges and barriers to be overcome in this fight but we can change attitudes by informing people about what is achievable and the progress that is being made. Earlier this year, we got a call from Nestle because two children, no older than 12, had independently decided to write to the company, after seeing 1.4 Billion Reasons at their school, to ask what the company were doing to ensure their supply chains were ethical. This is progress.

No action towards ending extreme poverty is too small. Small demonstrations of a change in attitudes can and will develop into something powerful, a political force that will make politicians, governments and policy-makers finally feel the weight and urgency of this movement, this wave of change is about to break.

As this wave travels, carrying ever more people in its path, we move closer to ending extreme poverty within a generation. This wave of change in attitudes towards poverty has already started. It is the same wave that prompts Bill and Melinda Gates to call themselves “impatient optimists” when it comes to progress in international development, and that only a year ago, made Cadbury became Fairtrade certified.

No Longer ‘Their’ Problem - It Is Our Problem
In the words of TV presenter Denise Robertson, at one of our presentations: “Technological advance has made it impossible to stay, eyes shut, in our own little world … We can see what is happening to our fellow human beings. Global poverty is no longer ‘their’ problem. It is our problem.” Denise’s words bring us back to the notion of a shared humanity. Irrespective of where we live, the clothes on our backs, the cash in our pockets or food in our bellies, we all share one thing: the ability to feel hope and pain, to love and to laugh.

Through small steps each and every one of us can make the vision of a world without extreme poverty within a generation a reality. In a time of lack of trust in governments, why not place trust in ourselves to make the right ethical choices, and use our own voices to change policy. Let’s reach a stage where politicians may not be elected without a clear, cohesive national plan for tackling extreme poverty. It may seem like we are a long way off, but given the passion and dedication we’ve witnessed on these issues, we may just be on the right track.

Matti Navellou is the UK Activation Coordinator for The Global Poverty Project – an educational organisation seeking to invigorate the global movement against extreme poverty by increasing the number and effectiveness of people taking action.

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