I spend every Monday with 11 European students and one from Sierra Leone as part of the Lantos/Capitol Hill Fellowship. Yesterday afternoon, we watched the documentary They Come in the Name of Helping and afterwards we had a lively discussion with its producer, Peter Brock.
Brock met now Lantos Fellow Joseph Kaifala (from Sierra Leone) at Skidmore College in United States. Kaifala and some of his friends from back home explain how they perceive aid workers and why aid is often wrongly implemented; Aid organizations lack understanding and knowledge of the culture and society they are operating within. Furthermore, Brock argues that donors give money out of pity instead of respect and humility.
PR and aid
This raised an interesting discussion about PR campaigns raising money for aid. Brock mentioned slogans as “Save Darfur” and “Save a Child” as examples where the message tailors the donors’ bad conscience and pity instead of respect for the African people. One of the Kaifalas in the documentary says: We are poor but we deserve dignity.
I do understand the critique of the campaigns – without having paid much professional attention to them. On the other hand, as a communications professional, I also have to say that PR does not work if the campaigns do not take the target audience’s self interest and motivation into consideration. And how much can one individual take in? The aid organizations are competing with each other and they are competing with other issues such as climate change, human rights, and homelessness in our backyard. Therefore, the PR campaigns have to cut through this clutter to be successful. Not to say that they cannot improve. I am sure they can!
Brock and Kaifala suggest that we should not only donate money to Africa but should become civically engaged in our local communities and fight local problems. I figure this should improve our respect and humility for other people – at home and abroad. This message might work in United States with a communitarian tradition. But I do not think it could work in a European setting – or at least in the Scandinavian countries. For instance, we do not have the same tradition for helping out in our communities. Another guest speaker to the group said that Americans cook a casserole as soon as there is minor problem. That is also my experience from living here. But that does not transcend to Europe – or at least my home country Denmark.
Please, watch the documentary. It is thoughtful and it raises an important debate and call for more respect and humility in development aid which does make a lot of sense to me.