Changing norms, changing narratives

The western world is in the grip of a massive socio-political shift. Old norms are being brought into the spotlight and rethought. And aid and development are not immune to this – old understandings and approaches are being forced to shake up. No longer can a well-meaning international NGO fly in to a community, dispense their gifts and then disappear.

Local communities and organisations are demanding change.

I’m not going to touch on the complexities of the aid system itself and changes that are so desperately required to the dynamics between donors, international and local NGOs, and the local communities affected.

But I am going to say that these changes mean changes are needed to communication too. Narratives that rely on the generous aid donor and the grateful recipient are no longer acceptable.

Local communities need to be empowered, strengthened, respected in narratives and story-telling.

These narratives have been slowly falling out of fashion in recent years, but still persist in many circles – government agency through to smaller international NGOs alike.

But that doesn’t mean your NGO shouldn’t try to change.

So what does that mean practically?

1. Empower the community

At its heart, this means you need to put the community at the centre of all of your communications.

Just as your programs should be delivered in partnership with the community, your communications need to be the same. Communities need to be empowered to determine their own choices and path. Your communications need to make this clear – that the communities you are working with are achieving their own outcomes.

Rather than celebrating your organisation’s achievements, focus communications on celebrating those of your partners and communities.

2. Avoid ‘poverty porn’

‘Poverty porn’, using attention grabbing devastating images of vulnerable people in advertising, fell out of favour in the 1990s, in favour of more positive imagery. However, as people become ever more desensitised and our social media feeds become even more saturated, there is a growing trend towards using these kinds of images again.

One of the most controversial examples of poverty porn – from a 2013 Save the Children advertisement, taken from Malaka Gharib’s great piece on


It may be tempting to try to shock viewers into donating, try to show the reality of a situation that is so far removed from the understanding of western viewers. The exploitative nature of this kind of imagery and storytelling cannot be ignored – as this quite sobering blog shows.

But at the other end of the scale, showing only cheerful faces completely belies the reality of life and complex contexts.

It is a difficult line to walk, and one NGOs grapple with every time they release content. In many cases, showing the reality of a situation, especially a humanitarian response, is almost unavoidably showing devastating images that can easily look exploitative or focus on the vulnerability of those in the image.

Ultimately, as with so much in development, apply the same lens as you would do for your own families and friends – if you wouldn’t publicise that photo of them, or tell the story in that way, then don’t do it for communities you are working with either.

3. Do not over-focus on your branding

NGOs deliver communications for a range of reasons – not least of which to showcase their work to donors, so they can continue to get essential funding. So content is heavily branded (often at the request of donors!) and can be almost self-congratulatory in tone.

Downplaying your role in favour of promoting the work of communities does not detract from this important priority.

In fact, it can make you look even stronger. All donors want to see good evidence of sustainability and long-term community impacts and cultural changes. Highlighting how much you have empowered a local community to achieve their own objectives, makes you more appealing as a long-term partner for donors.

That doesn’t mean to completely downplay or hide your NGO’s contributions. Far from it.

Just associating yourself with content publicly is a powerful statement in its own right. As can be using the right well-judged hashtags or comments, to make subtle reference to your work. And it doesn’t mean to completely not reference your support either, just make sure to use language that does not disenfranchise the participants and broader community, and builds a partnership narrative rather than giving/recipient.

In summary

As the world changes as old norms are challenged, lead the curve by making sure your NGO’s public persona is sensitive while still being compelling and engaging.

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