Guest Blog Aid is just a sticking plaster… Why we need a new way to talk about international issues

Ralph Underhill is Director of Framing Matters and a PIRC Associate. Along with HPA he’s just published ‘A Practical Guide for Communicating Global Justice & Solidarity’.

Giving to charity is supposed to be a good thing. That is pretty uncontroversial, most people accept that. But what about the word itself? What associations does it bring to mind? And most importantly, are these associations actually helpful to your cause?

So let’s have a look at what we associate with ‘charity’, and the beliefs the word helps to reinforce. You can do this exercise with any words or phrases to understand the impact they may be having:

STEP 1: Write the word on a piece of paper (A3 or flip chart is best). Now write and draw as many words, phrases and symbols that come to mind when you read or hear that word.

Give, help, poverty, donation, shop…

STEP 2: Where do you most often hear that word? Think about who you have heard say it and write phrases that use it or refer to it on your bit of paper.

Charity begins at home, I don’t need your charity…

STEP 3: Now finish with a Google image search (always do this with new framing to highlight associations you might have overlooked). Have a good scroll through and add anything you see here but don’t already have on your paper.

Pictures of poor people with hands out, helping hands…

STEP 4: Now look at your, hopefully full, bit of paper. On a separate piece of paper, I want you to look at the pictures, words and phrases and ask yourself one simple question – what are you as a reader being asked to believe about charity?  For example, the phrase “charity is about donating money” is asking me to believe that donating money is the primary act of charity, that money will solve the problem and that those with more should give to those with less.

It is about donating to people worse off, some people need help, others give it, giving money will address the problem…

STEP 5: Look through the beliefs you have listed, sort them into three columns: helpful, unhelpful and unsure. In terms of how helpful you think those beliefs are for your cause. Once you have done this you can weigh up whether it is a term or phrase you are happy with using.

Helpful: problems exist and we need to take action. It is the moral thing to do.
Unhelpful: they are victims we are heroes, it happens to someone else ‘over there’.

This is an exercise I did with Health Poverty Action and we found that, although easily recognised by the public, the terms ‘Charity’, ‘Aid’ and ‘Development’ all have associations that on balance we decided were unhelpful. Primarily due to the untrue worldview they perpetuate, that of a superior, more advanced, rich part of the world having to save its helpless, poverty-stricken counterpart. This narrative ignores the fact that poverty is created by unfair economic structures, that poverty occurs in all countries and that people want self-determination, not pity.

STEP 6 (the final step): If the term is unhelpful, look for alternatives. Follow the same process until you find something that reinforces beliefs that are helpful to your cause.

Solidarity, standing with…

PIRC, in their recent piece ‘How do we frame our way out of this mess?’, came to a similar conclusion that we need to be conscious about who we include in our sphere of concern, and how we relate to them. Rather than ‘othering’ people, or extending the hand of ‘charity’, we should instead be standing in ‘solidarity’.

This exercise is an insight into the approach that Framing Matters (that’s me) and Health Poverty Action have taken when producing our new free to download toolkit challenging the existing narrative of aid and overseas development. It is full of advice and exercises to help you make your communications more effective.

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