Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Civil Society will save Aceh: but will Aceh support it? Will you?

I am interested in the Indonesia Presidential elections because the country’s leader will have to finally recognize the incalculable value of civil society in creating a safe and happy future for its citizens.  Right now it could give a rat’s ass.

In Aceh the national government is painted as an “enemy of Islam” and therefor an enemy of the “freedoms” that Partai Aceh/Probowo are promising if they win.  For some bizarre reason, the term “NGO” is seen as being synonymous with the government.  Would that it were true.  Indonesia has an abysmal lack of respect or understanding of what non-profit and volunteer groups have done, and could continue to do, for the country.  In comparison with a bureaucracy that seems to be on one long coffee break, small pockets of community members try to hold it all together, whether it be through health initiatives, education reform groups, farmers’ rights advocates, environmentalists, or sustainable livelihoods agencies like JMD—NGOs try to fill in the enormous gap that Indonesian bureaucracy does not see fit to fill any time soon.  NGO= Non-Governmental Organization.  And yet in his recent trip to Aceh to report on the legislative elections, journalist Michael Bachelard was harassed by pro-PA supporters asking him belligerently if he was from an NGO, as if this were the worst sin one could commit in northern Aceh. Because NGOs are in cahoots with Jakarta, don’t you know.  If any of these pea-brained thugs-for-hire were asked to explain what it was about NGOs that was so detrimental to Aceh’s way of life, they couldn’t tell you.  But you’ve got a government that doesn’t care whether its employees do their jobs and give services, and a community full of disenfranchised GAM families spoiling for a fight and promised the world by the Gerinda party, and there’s no way in the world that any sane Acehnese would want to work for not much money for a group that actually helps people, actually loves the land and its natural resources, actually wants boys and girls to be educated. 

Fortunately there are, as in every country, a few less-than-sane souls who pretty much risk their lives every day for their neighbors and their communities. These are the people who implement the programs that provide the materials that train the community to grow and prosper and begin once again to think and make decisions for itself.

And no one, anywhere, is willing to donate any money or technical assistance to help these people learn how to best do those things.

There is a May 20 article by Weh Yeoh currently circulating on several international development websites, called   5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible.”  It has generated a lot of criticism from those in the development field, as well s those in marketing and social media.  Raising money (Marketing) for an organization or project needs to be simplistic and catchy, says the article, but in so doing it “dumbs down” the complexity of the actual work needed to be done.
I’m reprinting the article and link below so you can see the outcry that this caused, and I was about to jump on the bandwagon, but I started re-thinking my opinion after this statement by the author:

As long as we have donor-driven marketing, we cannot have needs-driven development.

Yeoh devotes a good portion of the article to a trend known as “poverty porn” in which graphic and disturbing images of an agency’s particular crisis are shown in an ad as an attempt to horrify people into donating.  He uses Save The Children’s recent ad campaign as an example.

I understand what he’s saying, but I think both his statement above as well as the “poverty porn” campaigns are on the right track.

JMD has received donations for goats, for seeds, for tools to help women farmers.  Heifer International lets you adopt a cow.  Save the Children lets you adopt a child.  Food pantries say “feed the hungry.”  Because these are things donors want to do.  When they think of kids, and goats, and big dinners, they feel all warm and fuzzy.  They don’t feel the same way about bookkeepers, electric bills, audits, or management courses.  Yet those things are what is needed by the agencies giving out the goats and teaching the farmers and providing malaria awareness.

JMD has received practically no administrative support. Funds are mandated by donors to go to direct services and materials. Excessive administrative costs are one thing.  But in a province where an appropriate administration is the difference between a thriving NGO community and extinction, attention needs to be focused on an agency's ability to sustainably provide needed materials and services.  Needs-driven development for JMD would look like this:  Training for the administrative and bookkeeping staff in how to network with local and government agencies, develop and prepare responses to international funding RFPs, manage grant funds, provide appropriate monitoring and evaluation, advocate for policy changes on the local and national level, supervise direct staff appropriately and develop good policies and procedures . . . I could go on.

JMD is at a crossroads at the moment because it cannot apply for funding for more programming unless some agency or group of donors steps up to the plate and recognizes how crucial good administrative staff and appropriate field staff training is to the success of any direct project.  In a country and province where NGOs are treated with suspicion, the word “volunteer” is hardly recognizable.  These local agencies are the province’s last best hope—and they have been nearly wiped out.

None of the $600 million in post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh ever went to training local citizens how to be competent and permanent NGOs in the new landscape of global competition.  As a result, there are practically no local non-profit, non-governmental service of any kind in Aceh anymore.  Donor-driven funding allowed international NGOs to get the multi-million dollar contracts and paternalistically “hire” individuals from local groups, gutting those groups forever and taking the majority of the funding themselves, leaving the administrative landscape as barren as Aceh’s once-verdant rainforests.

Be honest:  If you were given a choice to give $200 to either buy a family a lamb, or pay for one month of management training for the director of the agency that tries to help farmers, which would you pick?
Save the Children’s “poverty porn” is more than just a gimmick.  The sight of a starving child may be horrifying . . . but think of how horrifying it is to the child herself, or to her mother.  It is a reality, not a stage set. 
Will there ever be needs-driven development?  As someone who has seen too many special interest projects go belly up in Aceh, I certainly hope so.

5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible
By Weh Yeoh | Posted in: Ethics in development, Fundraising, NGOs, Poverty, Social media | May 20, 2014 |
I finally watched Kony 2012. From a pure marketing perspective, the video itself is absolutely flawless. They manage to take a very complex situation, and not only make the audience understand it, but also care. But herein lies the problem. Critics of Invisible Children say that Kony 2012’s simple message of “catch the bad guy” is a distraction from the real issues that exist in Central African Republic. The message doesn’t reflect the complexity of the work needed.
Effective marketing brings attention and donations. Good development work should improve the lives of poor people. Does the latter limit the ability of good marketing folk to tell that simple story which the public seeks? Here are the 5 reasons why effective marketing cannot co-exist with effective development work.

1.     We have short attention spans
Research shows that when we read web pages, we actually don’t. In fact, we typically read 28% of the text that is on a web page. Similarly, only 12% of readers read all the way to the bottom of a page. (I’ll be accessing NSA records to check if you make it all the way down in a few minutes).
Knowing this, people who work in communications for non-profits boil down the complexities of the program so that it hardly represents the actual work done. Then they stick it in the slow cooker for another 12 hours until it is reduced even further.
In the push and pull of what needs to be done versus what people consume, clever communications folk know that they have to cater to the amount of effort that people are willing to give. 

2.     There is no incentive to translate complexity.
Even if an organisation truly values the work they do, and talks endlessly about how good this work is to other people in the sector, or even institutional donors such as government agencies, this matters little to the public.
Think about selling a product like Coca-Cola. In this transaction, the person buying the product is also the same person as the one receiving the benefit. In global development, the people paying and the person receiving the benefit are completely different. In the case of public donations, the payer is the general public and the people receiving services or programs are those in poor countries.
This creates a power imbalance because the person paying becomes the boss, not the person receiving benefits. Communication and marketing that oversimplify the message is another way of pandering to the needs of potential donors.

3.     Even if it offends some, on balance,  simple is better
When an organisation produces some marketing material that is offensive, such as Save the Children Australia did recently, they are likely to face some kind of backlash. In this case, the use of starving African children, often referred to as poverty porn, will offend some. Those in the know will be up in arms over what clearly negative tactics, and will write in to complain, post about it on social media and so forth.

Save the Children Australia’s poverty porn, captured by WhyDev’s Brendan Rigby who posted it to our Twitter account first. Video has since been taken down.
But at the end of the day, poverty porn and other negative marketing tactics work, at least in the short term. They raise funds from the public because they tell a simple message about the “other.”
The conversation that occurs within organisations is then around the costs versus benefits of running a campaign that uses poverty porn. And on balance, despite criticisms which I personally think are valid, those tactics remain. The prevailing attitude is still that the end justify the means. The proof in the pudding is that weeks after this backlash, Save the Children Australia were at it again. Same poverty porn angle, different ad.

4. Money drives the work, not the need.
I touched on this earlier, but the vast majority of aid and development still revolves around what the donor wants to do, not what the people need. The debate around overheads, which reflects the administrative costs of an organisation’s work, is an old one within the development sector, but knowledge of how irrelevant this metric is for the general public is still low.
Why? Because organisations don’t want to talk about it. In fact, if you go to pretty much any large non­profit’s website, somewhere, they’ll be boasting about how low their overheads are.

A large and internationally recognised non-profit bragging about low overheads. Based on this, who in the public would think this was irrelevant?
As long as we have donor-driven marketing, we cannot have needs-driven development.
5. Effective marketing draws on herd mentality
Interlinked with the need of non­profits to focus on fundraising is the realisation that good marketing is very much infectious. Everybody in non­profit communications wants to create that viral piece of campaigning.
charity: water are great exponents of this. More than 20,000 people have held birthday campaigns to raise funds for them, simply by sharing their desire to help out through social media and email. It’s been incredibly effective. charity: water have raised over $27 million in 2012. Not a bad effort for an organisation with less than 50 staff.
Forgetting for one moment criticisms about the actual impact that they make, charity: water are able to leverage off herd mentality and the bandwagon effect. These social pressures exist often because we want to be seen as being on the “winner’s side”. If the goal is getting a campaign to go viral, it’s not the effectiveness of what the organisation does that matters, it’s how much other people are sharing the same material.
We all know the power of communications to drive awareness and as importantly, donations. But the reality is, unless we change the way we consume communications as human beings, overly simplistic marketing tactics will always butt heads with good development work. Don’t agree? Please restore my faith in humanity and prove me wrong in the comments.

Weh Yeoh
Weh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of NSW. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. He has experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in China, through Handicap International. He is an obsessed barefoot runner, wearer of Lycra, and eats far too much for his body size. You can view his LinkedIn ( and follow him on Twitter @wmyeoh.
- See more at:

No comments :

Post a Comment