Public perceptions on donating to humanitarian causes

What influences our decisions to donate to humanitarian aid campaigns? Birkbeck University’s Professor Irene Bruna Seu examines public perceptions of aid recipients and of the use of children in humanitarian communications. 

By Carolina Are

The principle that all human beings are equal and deserving of assistance is at the core of humanitarianism. But the fundraising that makes humanitarian assistance possible is often at the whim of public opinion. Determining what triggers donations has become a key focus of NGO marketing teams. Two papers by Professor Irene Bruna Seu delve into this question by studying the UK public’s perception of populations “deserving” of aid, and audiences’ reaction to the use of children in humanitarian communications.

Picture by: @valario_davis on Unsplash

‘The Deserving’: Moral reasoning and ideological dilemmas in public responses to humanitarian communications (2016), The British Psychological Society

Recent humanitarian crises show that the public’s willingness to donate and fundraise is not consistent across different crises, or linked to the severity of human suffering involved. Professor Seu uses focus groups to explore the moral reasoning that people use to determine who is ‘deserving’ of their aid and assistance. Her research identified three important factors:

    1. Seeing a difference: or noting that beneficiaries have made good use of previous help. This scenario saw participants compare the “dignity” of the Japanese population during the tsunami to crises in Africa, described by the people interviewed as a “bowl you just can’t fill”, an area that is “nowhere near” improving its condition as opposed to the Japanese, who are “going forward” and rebuilding their country.
    2. Parochialism: deservingness on the basis of cultural similarities between benefactors and beneficiaries. A variety of focus group participants pointed out the “humility” and “polite behaviour” of the Japanese during the tsunami, which is perceived by Professor Seu as a comparison to Britain, a civil society that helps itself. “This is not a repertoire of need following devastation, which would apply to all those suffering from the effects of natural disasters […]. Rather, it’s about cultural mirroring and identification.”
    3. Hard work: the principle that receiving something should depend on the recipient having earned it, having worked hard for it. Here, deservingness is constructed through neoliberal discourse: “[I]t is OK to want things but one has to work hard for them; that is, it is wrong to get something for nothing.”

The three discourses examined above are, for Professor.Seu, a threat to humanitarianism as they challenge its universal principles, making help conditional. However, she stresses that contextualising responses, rather than approaching them as stimulus-response, should be the key approach in this situation.

Appealing children: UK audiences’ responses to the use of children in humanitarian communications (2015), the International Communications Gazette

NGOs frequently use images of children in their marketing and fundraising material. Children are considered the ‘ideal victim’ for this content, as they are associated with ideas of innocence, helplessness, as well as hope for the future. Images of children have been overused in aid campaigns because they work really well as fundraising tool, but this has contributed to a hardening of attitudes and a backlash in resentment and damage to trust towards NGOs.

In this paper, Professor Seu uses focus groups to study how audiences respond to campaigns using images of children.  This research identifies a number of problematic issues in the reaction they provoke in viewers.

  1. The counterproductive nature of horrific images, which can cause cause too much upset in the viewer: the viewer chooses to disconnect with the images in order to protect him or herself from suffering. For Professor Seu, “Here the empathy (‘putting yourself in that position’) that the communication is trying to evoke, brings too much painful closeness and the resulting response of avoidance.” It also causes resentment towards the agencies that “play” with viewers’ emotions.
  2. Awareness of advertising: The use of children as a form of advertising also creates a dilemma for the viewer, who may empathise with suffering, while also expressing irritation at being manipulated in this way. This can result in the viewer “disconnecting from what he perceives as a commercial ploy.”
  3. Ubiquity: Participants expressed a feeling of desensitisation to these images caused by their ubiquity: “All these things, they say the same story, don’t they?” and “It’s in your face so often, it becomes normal.”
  4. Double desensitisation: This, Professor Seu argues, means that the viewer is desensitised to images of children because of their overuse, but he/she also becomes immune towards humanitarian messages in general, “because of the constant and increasingly aggressive demands made by humanitarian agencies.”

Summing up her findings, Professor Seu states that

“The UK public feel deep disillusionment, disappointment and distrust deriving from the recognition of the marketer model being applied to and employed within the realm of humanitarianism.”

Conclusion: The need for a new marketing approach

Both papers suggest that NGOs need to explore other avenues for their marketing in order to both change public perception of populations deserving of aid and avoid audiences’ feelings of compassion fatigue, which for Professor Seu is becoming increasingly apparent. Considering the extensive research carried out in the realm of desensitisation to humanitarian causes, and the media’s portrayal of populations in need of aid, it is time that NGOs themselves step up in order to create more effective appeals that do not dehumanise their recipients and do not alienate their audiences, moving away from transactional models of addressing the public.

Professor Irene Bruna Seu and Shani Orgad’s book, Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the public and NGOs, is out now.