We’re being sold a big fat lie about global poverty – because it’s the only thing we’ll buy
The reputation of Non-Governmental Organisations is pretty low this week, following devastating revelations by The Times of sexual exploitation of vulnerable children by Oxfam workers and others. Not for the first time… the sector has attracted scrutiny in the last five years for campaigning tactics and apparent political partisanship, as well as for the salaries they pay to senior staff.
But, as the data guru Hans Rosling told the ODI a couple of years ago, in one of his last lectures before his death, anti-poverty charities have a more fundamental reputation problem.
They’re misrepresenting poverty.
As Rosling challenged us (I was a communications director for a major NGO then, and in the room when he was speaking), it’s the NGO sector’s fault that the public doesn’t understand how far we’ve come in the fight against poverty. When presenting data showing successes like the number of girls around the world enrolled in primary school (90%), he said: “many people say to me don’t tell [people] that because we can collect so much money on that bad perception”.
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Pretending that we haven’t made as much progress as we have brings in more money. It’s not hard to see why. Starving children attract our sympathy, and shock tactics guilt trip people into giving money.
When a more nuanced approach is offered – like the impressively dignified Oxfam Lift Lives for Good campaign which demonstrated the power of human agency and co-operation – we give it critical acclaim but don’t give money. We’re just not that bothered by the real lives of people in poverty, or the complexity of their journeys towards productivity.
It’s a frustrating supply and demand issue. We don’t pay attention until something is sufficiently urgent to pull our heart-strings. So NGOs give us something heartrending to look at, even though they know that global poverty has almost halved in the last 20 years. They reward our ignorance, because we can’t bring ourselves to care about something until it reaches a lethal tipping point. But the last lap in this vital race against poverty is complicated. Simplistic solutions just won’t work.
If NGOs are disingenuous in the way they portray poverty, we have only ourselves to blame.