Dean Russell: Charities should do more to explain the importance of international aid

The public can feel resentment towards organisations giving international aid when budgets are being cut at home, says Dean Russell

Dean Russell
Dean Russell

I was lucky to take part in a new think tank event at the agency I work for. The topic was 'how will we meet the challenges of a world population of more than eight billion?' Those attending included some brilliant minds from politics, commerce, communications and, of course, charities.

Throughout the evening, it struck me how almost every conversation led back in some form to the third sector - and, in particular, the important role it plays in connecting individuals within communities.

There was criticism too: not of the sector per se, but rather of the way it represented 'international aid' and the public perception of this. People pointed out that, in the current economic climate, the public can feel resentment towards organisations giving international aid when budgets are being cut at home.

This is an area where I believe charities could play a key role, especially by being more transparent about their income and where the money is spent in a way people can easily understand - and is not buried in financial statements. More importantly, they could come together to help explain what 'aid' really means, starting with shifting perceptions beyond the belief that it's simply throwing money at poor countries.

Raise awareness

Powerful points were made about the need for aid to be communicated as an investment. We were told how China is providing billions to Africa with the clear benefit in the long term of increasing import and export opportunities. Some might criticise this approach as self-serving, but surely it makes sense for China and Africa to work together in this way.

I have spoken about this topic several times with my local MP, Peter Lilley. He is a passionate member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for an organisation called Trade Out of Poverty. Its goal is clear: to raise awareness of how much the poorest countries could benefit from an opening up of markets to their exports. It researches the barriers that still exist, quantifies the damage they do and identifies successful ways of removing them. This makes total sense to me and plays on the classic quote: "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime."

Yet, as I thought about this more, I realised how much of the language of charity campaigns focuses on 'giving a fish' rather than empowering communities to feed themselves.

This led me to wonder if some campaigns inadvertently build long-term resentment by representing those in need as individuals who are utterly helpless. Instead, shouldn't we be talking about the benefits of investing in communities and what that means to society as a whole?

Most in need

Of course, it might be unpalatable to link human crisis to economic benefits. Sadly, the reality is that the lack of understanding about the economic benefits of aid risks encouraging a nationalistic mentality of 'sort out our problems first'. And this is damaging because international aid ultimately has far wider-reaching benefits to society as a whole and can make a huge difference to the lives of those most in need right now.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to solve all the world's problems in the one think-tank session. However, the discussion did end with an important question: "What will you do to make a difference from tomorrow?"

This led to some wonderful words of action, but also served to reaffirm my strong belief that we all have the power to create change - often simply through taking only one step at a time.

Dean Russell is European social media director, Lewis PR and a Conservative district councillor

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