There's a movement afoot in the international relief and development sector that's profoundly anti-donor. And it's a disturbing throw-back to the attitudes of 19th century imperialism, wrapped in a cloak of political correctness.
It's the misguided belief that fundraisers have a duty to protect the dignity of poverty- or disaster-stricken people. (This is not unique to international humanitarian organizations -- you can find it across many sectors of the nonprofit world.)
"Dignity" gets an official stamp of approval in a document called the Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief. The code has ten points, most of which are praiseworthy, such as, "Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone" (#2), "Relief aid must strive to reduce future vulnerabilities to disaster (#8), and "We hold ourselves accountable to both those we seek to assist and those from whom we accept resources" (#9).
The trouble starts in point #10: "In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects."
That's admirable, as far as it goes. Recognizing disaster victims as dignified humans simply acknowledges the truth that as humans, they have dignity. But there's more to it. This is really about certain kinds of subjectively chosen images and portrayals. The Code of Conduct goes on to say, "We shall portray an objective image of the disaster situation where the capacities and aspirations of disaster victims are highlighted, and not just their vulnerabilities and fears."
In real life, "recognizing dignity" means not using images such as:
- People waiting for help.
- People holding out their hands.
- Emaciated or otherwise endangered people.
- People in visible grief or pain.
In other words, images that show people actually in need -- people for whom donors might make a positive difference. Such things, the Masters of Dignity would say, strip people of their dignity.
(For spooky, otherworldly opinions from various spokespersons, read "NGOs still fail standards on appeal images" on the Reuters AlertNet site.)
The Masters of Dignity admit it's a subjective question, but they know what they like.
And what they like is almost exactly opposite of what donors need. In order to act, the donor needs to know there is need, and a powerful image can make the point. Deprive donors of that, and you aren't meeting donors where they are. Instead, you are forcing them into your mode of perception, your taste.
Not only will you fail to raise funds, you will fail to serve your donors. Remember, the Donor Powered organization knows that donors like to give -- they do so with open, joyful hearts, not grudgingly with bad attitudes. They are people who know that generosity to those in need helps make us fully human.
Imagine a world without powerful, galvanizing images like this one from Sudan, 1994:
Or this one from China, 1937:
That's where the "dignity" movement would take us. But there's another problem with the dignity movement: It is monstrously arrogant toward those it "protects."
If you've ever met poor and suffering people -- especially in the developing world -- you know they have dignity. In my experience, dignity is often the most outstanding feature you encounter: deep wells of self-sufficient personal dignity that simply overwhelms poverty, loss, or pain.
There's not a thing in the world you or I or any photographer can do to diminish their dignity. It is the height of arrogance to think their fragile dignity needs our protection. It's not meaningfully different from the "White Man's Burden" of the 19th century -- the duty to go out there and save the hapless and benighted "natives" who lacked their own resources.
There are many images we should not use in fundraising -- too graphic, too obscene, too off-point -- but please: our donors and the people we seek to help are not children who need our protection.
Tell the truth. Tell it with drama and precision. Don't hide painful realities. That's your duty to your mission -- and your donors.
Technorati Tags: disaster relief, International Red Cross