The study, conducted over a six-month period in 2021, examines 541 images found in 17 national weekend newspapers in the UK. All the adverts were characterised as supporting issues in countries overseas.
In the past charities have been criticised for their shock tactics and using images of suffering to generate emotions of compassion and pity. They have also been accused of dehumanising those depicted in the photographs and unnecessary use of stereotypes driven by unequal power dynamics. This criticism often warrants questions such as: how should charities portray the people they are trying to support and what is the damage of these representations?
Several factors have accelerated charity strategies and policies to reconsider the potential damage of representation and the stories they tell. One of the main contributing factors is the need to decolonise narratives by reducing stereotypes and the ‘white gaze’ through which we see other countries.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in 2020 were a significant catalyst in charities rapidly adopting or updating their ethical imagery policies. The COVID-19 pandemic was also instrumental in charities being forced to employ locally based photographers and filmmakers in the countries where they deliver programmes.
In this study, the researchers aimed to explore whether charity adverts have changed in recent years and what kinds of characters are represented in their fundraising campaigns.
Key findings from the study, published in a report called Charity Representations of Distant Others online today, include:
• More than half of the charity adverts (52 per cent) in UK national newspapers focus on supporting international causes.
• More than half of the images (56 per cent) supporting international causes focussed on countries in Africa.
• 50 per cent of the characters depicted in the adverts are of women and children. Whole family units are grossly under-represented. Only one image out of 541 images included a mother, father and child.
• 21 per cent of the characters are of children. This is a significant shift from a previous study in 2005/6 where 42 per cent of all characters focused on children.
• 20 per cent of all the images were of people characterised as professionals/leaders from the Global South, for example doctors, nurses and other development workers.
• 11 per cent of images were deemed as ‘pitiful’ or using ‘shock tactics’. The adverts were from two organisations and portray children who suffer from trachoma and a cleft condition respectively.
Associate professor David Girling, from UEA’s School of Global Development, said: “This research proves that charities are making significant efforts to improve the representation of people in countries overseas.
“It is good to see that there are more professionals involved in development work portrayed in the images used by charities. It is also positive to see the reduction in the use of children as helpless victims.
“Saying that, most of the images of children are still passive and often with their mothers. “Charities and NGOs must strive to present a more diverse cast of characters and consider the negative impact of Afro-centric representations of people in need.”
Co-Researcher Debbie Adesina, an MA Media and Global Development Media graduate who was Commonwealth Scholar and now works as a Communications and Development Consultant, said: “This study reveals how charities have reacted positively to previous studies and critiques of ethical storytelling.
“But the research leaves us with more questions on the silence/erasure of whole family units in charity adverts. The representation of 'Africa' seems to be perpetually frozen in rural times. These issues are topical and deserve more attention.
“Ethical storytelling is not a buzzword or some check-box exercise, it's an active pushback against the pervasive stereotypes and antiquated ideologies that continue in representations of distant others. It's a fight for inclusion of previously muted voices, and an attempt to bridge the yawning gap between Global North 'donors' and Global South 'beneficiaries'.
“There is much space for communications professionals to creatively reimagine and reconstruct the boundaries of geography in their representation of development work.
“The stories INGOs choose to tell and the images they use over time become deeply entrenched in the collective memories of supporters, donors, development partners, and the 'beneficiaries' themselves. These stories contribute to public knowledge of global poverty and of the Majority World.
Everyone involved in both the construction and consumption of such representation is complicit.”
As part of the research, a website (www.charity-advertising.co.uk) has been designed which includes a database of all the adverts collected during the six-month period. This resource will be a valuable tool for practitioners, researchers and students who are interested in improving ethical storytelling in the charity and development sectors.
The report, Charity Representations of Distant Others, is published online at www.charity-advertising.co.uk.
Prof Maren Duvendack, an intrepid academic from the School of Global Development at the University of East Anglia, is sailing more than 8,000 km from South Africa to Australia to raise money for UNICEF.Read more
Small-scale fishers in India could be benefiting from increase in forced migration, thanks to new research from UEA.Read more
A new report from the University of East Anglias Dr Martin Scott into the Governments UK Aid Match (UKAM) scheme has led to concerns of charity washing, with suggestions some UKAM allocations may reflect Ministers pursuit of reputational benefits, ratherRead more