Supporting or Undermining Real Change: Representations of Global Poverty

What do the fundraising and advocacy messages that International NGOs send out actually tell us about global poverty? How do they help us to understand and respond to it? How do they influence our understanding? These are questions addressed by Nandita Dogra’s book Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs (IB Tauris, May 2012). The book comes out at an interesting time for the UK International NGO community, as an old debate re-emerges about the nature of international development and the relationship between civil society organisations and government in shaping public understandings of development.

Dogra’s book is certainly timely. Through an analysis of a range of international NGO fundraising and advocacy campaigns undertaken throughout 2005-06, her argument is that despite the NGO soul-searching after the 1984 Ethiopian Crisis and the “imagery debate” of the 1980s and 1990s, NGO representations of poverty are still entirely removed from its root causes. The meat of this book is her deconstruction of a series of these NGO campaigns through an approach that mingles “discursive history with textural analysis”. In doing so, she asserts that NGO representations completely ignore the historical context of poverty in the “majority world”, build on neo-colonial and romanticised notions of “otherness” and difference whilst at the same time tapping into unreflective concepts of “oneness” and shared humanity.

Whilst they have been successful in raising funds for NGOs, she argues that these representations only serve to confuse public understanding of global poverty and ultimately damage the case for radical reform of global institutions and behaviour. Perhaps more worryingly for NGOs, Dogra says that these representations actually serve to undermine their objectives by creating internal dissonance between their advocacy and fundraising objectives, and weaken their ability to deliver by first underplaying the “voice” of beneficiaries from the global South and second by denying the institutional, political and historical aspects of global poverty.

From an NGO perspective, it is a tough message to hear but the challenge Dogra lays out in the book is an important one to respond to, even if the evidence is not accepted in its entirety.

For me, Dogra’s book works best as rhetoric and theory. Her main arguments are revealed in the opening chapter, but unfortunately these can sometimes feel weakened rather than strengthened by the detailed analysis made in further chapters. Part of this is a sense of leaping from micro scrutiny to macro conclusion with little in between. In spite of the detailed deconstruction, the differences between NGOs are somehow lost in some rather broad-brush conclusions. What Dogra gives us glimpses of, but could explore further, is the internal organisational struggle that international NGOs engage in around message and substance. She deals much better though with the commodification of development messaging and its “consumption” through charitable giving.

As Chief Executive of an international NGO, this is not a comfortable book to read. Nor should it be. I can quibble on the detail but Dogra makes her challenge both clear and readable, and as a starting point for future debates on building public understanding of global poverty and how it might be tackled, it is an important and thought-provoking contribution.

[Google preview of the book here]

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