* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Aid agencies think that the public dislike complexity or risk, so we portray ourselves as “charities” not the complicated agents of social change we actually aspire to be
Yumbe is tucked away in the northwest corner of Uganda. A dozen years ago I worked in this region, and I recently went back. Much has changed. Civil war in South Sudan has created two million refugees, half of whom have crossed into Uganda.
You might expect strife, but in fact the combination of South Sudanese and Ugandans is sparking enterprise and growth. Refugee spending is supporting more businesses, bringing market opportunities to a previously remote part of Uganda.
In response, organisations like mine are working with the private sector and government to support not just individuals, but the market systems they rely on. That includes promoting land sharing between refugees and hosts, subsidising seed purchases from agro-dealers, and improving access to quality seeds from national companies. It is complicated social and economic work.
But we have a problem: traditionally, our work has been labelled “charity”, one definition of which is “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need”. The word “charity” has become synonymous with “handouts”.
The work in Yumbe isn’t a handout, though, and to describe it as “charity” doesn’t do it justice. This misnomer is largely our own fault. Aid agencies think that the public and politicians dislike complexity or risk, so we portray ourselves as “charities” – giving to the needy – not the complicated agents of social change we actually aspire to be.
This has affected the relationship between aid agencies and the media. Journalists can smell inconsistency, and by presenting ourselves so simplistically, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have made ourselves a target. Resulting media attacks have made us wary and defensive.
This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer – a survey of more than 33,000 respondents – found that NGOs are viewed negatively or neutrally in 21 of the 28 countries surveyed. In the UK, trust in NGOs is only 46 percent.
But if we misrepresent ourselves as simple “charities”, little wonder people mistrust us. To regain trust, we need to communicate better what the work of modern NGOs actually involves. We can’t do that without the media. It is through the media that the world is represented, including our role in helping to shape it.
And in the current crisis of trust, NGOs and the media have common ground. For the first time in its history, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that media are trusted less than businesses or government – driven by the growth of “fake news” and the public’s difficulty in telling fact from fiction. The media are suffering a lack of trust alongside NGOs.
So shouldn’t we take a different view of the relationship between NGOs and the media, in which we needn’t be in opposition? NGOs and the media are both essential for counterbalancing governments and businesses, for building social capital and shared values that help hold society together. Together, we could make some real changes to restore trust.
NGOs like mine should openly represent the complexity of our work. No-one knows better than we do that our sector is not perfect. We should avoid the ‘charity’ stereotype and communicate more transparently about the challenges we seek to solve.
In turn, while media organisations should continue to look critically at aid agencies, more media should look beyond simplistic stories and explore the realities of aid objectively and fairly.
Such a shift would benefit communities in the UK and abroad. It would also help address our common problem – by restoring trust in all of us.
Simon O’Connell is executive director at Mercy Corps