NEWS IN FOCUS: The growing gap between practice and presentation

John Plummer

The DEC's Southern Africa appeal broke with tradition in that it tried to avert a food crisis rather than responding to a disaster, but it left some charities being accused of exaggeration.

Last year's Southern Africa food crisis appeal saved lives, and donors got value for money, according to a report published this month by independent evaluators.

Yet the newspaper headlines accompanying the publication of the report, A Stitch in Time?, damned and damaged the voluntary sector in a particularly brutal manner. Both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph ran lengthy articles stating that aid agencies had exaggerated the extent of the famine in their efforts to attract funds.

While overstating the crisis was cited as a criticism, the report - by Valid International, the company appointed to assess the humanitarian response - was otherwise largely complimentary.

It would be easy to dismiss the articles as mischievous journalism, ignoring the good bits and highlighting the bad. But it is difficult to recall any of the previous 48 appeals launched by the Disasters Emergency Committee, the umbrella body that co-ordinates the UK humanitarian response to catastrophes, generating anything like as much hostility in the media - even though some were given far worse marks by evaluators.

The scathing attacks suggest that something has changed, and that aid agencies might have to get used to a rougher ride in the press. But before absolving themselves of all responsibility, perhaps charities should examine whether they are in fact guilty of muddling their messages. After all, by tackling the problem there is a chance they could avoid similarly embarrassing headlines next time.

James Kliffen, head of fundraising at Medecins sans Frontieres UK, thinks there is growing tension between aid staff on the ground, who know what needs to be done in a crisis, and head office staff, who know how much needs to be raised and what the public will respond to.

Mounting criticism

"People on the ground are increasingly critical about how these needs are being presented to the public, in terms of their style, language and imagery," he says.

PR officers, Kliffen argues, are too quick to wheel out the 'f-word' - famine. Among Valid International's criticisms of the Southern Africa appeal was that charities should have spent more time explaining the underlying causes of the impending disaster, such as HIV, and less time on famine.

"But that didn't fit the brief," he says.

He adds that the huge publicity potential the DEC provides, such as prime-time TV coverage, also tempts charities to make sure their message lives up to the media opportunity. "There is a risk of adapting the cause to fit the opportunity and of drifting, albeit unintentionally, away from the real reasons why agencies are acting," he says.

"There is a growing gap between practice and presentation: the more that gap widens the more danger there is of it bursting and more articles like these appearing."

The Southern Africa appeal broke from DEC tradition by attempting to avert a major catastrophe, rather than reacting to one. The decision was based on UN figures stating that 14 million people in the region needed food aid. But needing assistance is not the same as starving, and some of the messages put out by charities working under the DEC umbrella went too far. Tearfund, for example, said 14 million people faced starvation.

World Vision talked of "a crisis of biblical proportions".

The need to stir the public to give for a potential crisis, rather than for a breaking crisis that comes complete with harrowing images, isn't easy. The recommendation that charities spend more time explaining the deep-rooted causes of a crisis makes the task even harder.

Tearfund spokeswoman Abby King says there is a sense of being "damned if you do and damned if you don't" when it comes to planning a creative message that can be encapsulated in a snappy soundbite or image. "The media is not interested in the long-term causes of the crisis and it would be difficult to communicate with them in an effective way if we have to take this approach," she says.

King admits the recent headlines "undermine the public's confidence in us", and that charities need to find a better balance between presentation and facts. "We just have to try harder," she says.

Partial coverage

The recent headlines stung the DEC into sending letters to The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph accentuating the more positive aspects of the evaluators' report. DEC chief executive Brendan Gormley says: "The coverage from these newspapers was partial and there was a powerful story that needed to be told to the British public about how their efforts had prevented many people from dying."

But Gormley admits agencies face a dilemma. "The problem is one of shrinking down a complex set of issues," he says. "We have to be so careful about the language we use."

He concedes the name Disasters Emergency Committee is misleading because it implies that aid agencies only respond to disasters and emergencies, rather than averting them. The Southern Africa appeal was a deliberate step away from that, and one he says the DEC will repeat, despite the challenges this presents in terms of attracting public interest and donations.

Paul Mylrea, head of media at Oxfam, says the DEC should be praised for its transparency in appointing an evaluator, but believes it is unfair that, despite getting good marks, it has been put on the rack. "It is frustrating," he says. "Responding to chronic and complex emergencies is a very difficult issue. There are lessons we can learn but some of the allegations are awful and completely unjustified."

But Kliffen thinks that in the long run the DEC will get its reward.

The evaluation report, plus the ensuing media frenzy, will fuel a debate within aid agencies about how to reduce the gulf between the fundraisers in the office and the staff on the frontline.

"The DEC deserves credit for commissioning the report," he says. "Anything that helps fundraisers to be more effective deserves recognition."

- See Opinion, page 16.

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