LONDON (AlertNet) – Whenever a sudden disaster strikes, aid agencies face a quandary -- how to tug at donors' heartstrings with powerful images without breaking self-imposed rules about portraying survivors with dignity?
Dozens of NGOs launched funding appeals within days of a massive earthquake hitting southeastern Iran in late 2003, knowing the short attention span of television media would soon move elsewhere, leaving scant time to harness public sympathy.
"The point to watch with appeals is you're trying to make money out of an image," said Tony Vaux, a former Oxfam worker and author of a book about the aid world, "The Selfish Altruist".
"I don't think you can just say, 'I'm making money for a good cause, and therefore anything's justified.’ I think you have to be saying to yourself, 'I'm exploiting this situation. What are the bounds of morality?'"
Vaux said he had seen few shocking examples of bad practice after the December 26 Iran earthquake, but that the risks were always there.
"The root of the problem is they're competing with other agencies," he said. "If they put in a bland image with all sorts of educational stuff, they don't get the response, so I think there will always be this tendency.”
Eva Von Oelreich, head of disaster preparedness at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said: “We have to overcome that enormous gap that means we are much more sorry for a neighbour's dog and our neighbouring countries than those far away. We need to show we are part of one planet."
Fundraising appeals have come a long way since the days when European churches collected money with pictures of starving black babies.
"The very far extreme -- the obscene images -- have been wiped out," Vaux said.
"I can't remember seeing the (starving) Biafra child for a long time. You do see pathetic people needing eye operations. Those kind of shock images are still around. Or people with some dreadful disease.
"(But) you don't get the leprosy limbs you used to get 20 or 30 years ago, so I suppose there's been a certain improvement."
HARD TO PIN DOWN
An entire academic discipline has emerged covering development, humanitarian relief, refugee studies and so on, and the aid world over the past two decades in particular has become much more aware of its responsibilities to people receiving assistance.
Von Oelreich said she noticed that agencies often used images that were degrading or portrayed people as helpless victims, and the worst examples were usually related to drought.
"It's people who are emaciated and it's ignoble to portray."
Vaux said it was unacceptable to use appeal photographs to make false generalisations.
For example, he said appeals for African food crises sometimes still used images of children in nutrition centres as if to suggest that the emaciated children before the lens were representative of kids throughout the country.
But experts agree it is difficult to pin down exactly what is inappropriate.
Sometimes photographs of mourners are intrusive, and sometimes they are acceptable if taken from a distance, Vaux said.
"An image always gives a very emotional impression and there are so many ways (of taking a photograph)," Von Oelreich said. "A sobbing person might be quite all right. It depends what is around that person."
Vaux said images inspiring pity by showing victims holding out their hands or waiting for help were misleading.
"It's not actually what people are saying,” he said. “People are saying: 'We're getting on with trying to sort ourselves out, and if you want to give us a hand, that's great.’ That would be more truthful."
’NOT HELPLESS OBJECTS’
Vaux took part in a critical evaluation of the response to the 2001 earthquake in western India by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella group of British agencies.
The evaluation report said a DEC appeal photograph of an old man with his hands raised in supplication failed to emphasise the dignity of the people it was aimed at helping, and was therefore a contradiction of the Red Cross Code of Conduct, which most responsible NGOs agree to abide by.
The Red Cross code says: "In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not helpless objects."
This is further defined as a commitment to portray "an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears."
Relief agencies struggle to be accountable to both donors and the people they work with in developing countries.
Von Oelrich said humanitarian organisations had a duty to give the general public a realistic picture of where its donations were going, even if that meant tackling some complex issues.
"It's absurd to try to build on a bad conscience or pity or those very legitimate feelings we can have,” she said.
The DEC evaluation of the Gujarat earthquake response said: "(We) detected a tendency amongst some aid agency staff in the UK to regard public sympathy as a commodity to be exploited rather than a perception to be developed."
LOCAL PEOPLE IGNORED
Von Oelrich said NGOs should work more on describing how humanitarian work was connected to recovery, poverty and development.
"It's our fault as humanitarians that we can't make this understood to people in simple terms, so we keep them ignorant, in a sense," she said.
"We have spent a lot of time on building up financial and legal accountability towards our donors, including the general public, but it's much more difficult to find an appropriate way of being accountable to the people who are affected by a disaster.”
Experts noted that disaster images rarely portrayed local people helping each other.
"Ninety percent of the people saved are saved by their neighbours and family and about 10 percent by people rush in from round and about, and about 0.01 percent by people who come in from the other side of the world," Vaux said.
Von Oelrich agreed.
“We over-emphasise the international part. We want to show how we are the helpers whereas we show so little of local initiatives. I miss that because it has to do with capacities which we can build on, rather than weaknesses which we can come in and help with.”
With the number of NGOs in the world on the rise and the industry’s standards coming under increasing scrutiny, the humanitarian community has come up with guidelines to raise its professionalism.
The Red Cross Red Crescent movement and the Geneva-based Sphere Project are the most prominent promoters of quality and accountability in humanitarian response.
The Sphere Project focuses on minimum standards in humanitarian action, and its handbook provides indicators to measure compliance. The document includes the principles of conduct for the international Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and NGOs in disaster response programmes.
"I see that there are new organisations coming up with the same problematic ways of using images that we have tried to... get rid of," Von Oelreich said, adding that the proliferation of new agencies had led to lower standards.
"Sometimes there are barriers between different parts of an organisation and not enough interaction or penetration of essential policy issues to all parts of our organisations."
’VOCABULARY OF THE 19th CENTURY'
Von Oelrich said that when fundraising and communications staff came from the private sector, it could take time and education for them to understand the political implications of the language and images they used.
"When they talk about people as 'victims' that already says something, if you don't see people as human beings with capacities," she said.
She was also critical of initiatives -- especially common among business efforts to be involved in socially responsible projects -- that talked about "charity" and "philanthropy".
"They are using a vocabulary of the 19th century," she said.
Alison Joyner, project manager at the Sphere Project, said her personal impression was that NGOs paid less attention to the politics of images than they used to.
"There's a feeling that things have slipped in the last five or six years," she told AlertNet.
Von Oelrich disagreed. She said: "I think it's slowly, slowly getting better."
Joyner said NGOs tended to overlook the code of conduct, and it was no longer promoted as much as it used to be.
"New people might not even be aware of it," she said. "In practice, people think of Sphere as standards and don't really think about the charter.”
Von Oelreich said the IFRC had agreed to register organisations that choose to sign up to the code of conduct.
"But there is absolutely no compliance mechanism," she said.