Communications: Reputation in a climate of suspicion

Tony Durham, ActionAid's international communications co-ordinator for Africa, explains that it can be hard for aid workers to come to terms with the less-than-saintly image people have of NGOs throughout that continent.

On arriving in Nairobi for a three-month stint in this job, I soon discovered that our reputation is nothing like it is back in the UK.

Here, ActionAid is classed as an NGO, not a charity, and we have to live with the less-than-saintly reputation that surrounds the NGO sector anywhere south of Gibraltar.

There are lots of dodgy outfits around, such as the Kenyan NGOs that were recently found to have embezzled £2.4m intended for Aids projects in poor communities.

No NGO's reputation is above question. We had to do some rapid checks with our colleagues in Monrovia after the Save the Children Fund reported aid workers in Liberia were trading food for sex with young girls. At any moment a journalist could ask us "was it your organisation?", and "hang on while I find out" is not a good answer.

In Europe or the US, even big charities feel poor and powerless relative to governments or corporations. But in Africa, international NGOs are perceived as wealthy and influential businesses, and as major players in the national economy.

We need to behave graciously in partnerships and coalitions with organisations that are much smaller, poorer and less powerful than ourselves.

Last year's Make Poverty History campaign in the UK was, for development charities, a stressful exercise in coalition working. It was hard to set aside the habits of building our brands.

In Africa, however, coalition working is the norm. Without the fundraising imperative, it is easier to be team players. Strong branding, a necessity in the UK, can appear tasteless or even counterproductive here.

At next year's World Social Forum in Nairobi, ActionAid will be yielding the stage to our partners - the grass-roots organisations we work with.

This is because, as a colleague explained, "if you have money to facilitate the attendance of 50 partners at the forum, you are powerful, and people fear you".

I have never before had to worry about appearing too powerful or being feared. It's a weird feeling, almost as if I have moved from ActionAid's press office to work in communications for Tesco or Wal-Mart.

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