Policing NGOs’ use of unacceptable imagery

One of the interesting things to come out of this week’s Bond AGM was a first discussion of how to police the international development sector in Britain. This came up particularly in the context of the debate over imagery and how best to engage the public, but also in discussion with Hans Zomer, director of Dóchas (the Irish equivalent of Bond), who was there on the day. With the AGM voting through its new Charter nem con, Bond confirmed its commitment to the Europe-wide code of conduct on images of the majority world mentioned elsewhere on this site. The European code was based on an original developed by Dóchas, and that original version as used within the Irish national context contains an additional clause (clause 7) that requires all signatories to report annually to Dóchas on their implementation of the code. Would a similar reporting requirement in the British context be a step in the right direction? Easy to implement, it would at least open up a mechanism for keeping the issue on the table – maybe via an annual review or conference looking at the sector’s performance. The recent resurgence of unacceptable imagery has shown that self-policing by individual agencies is insufficient; should we not be taking a leaf out of Ireland’s book?

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About John Hilary

Executive Director at War on Want
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4 Responses to Policing NGOs’ use of unacceptable imagery

  1. That’s a brilliant suggestion. I’ve been saying for a while that we need some kind of self-regulation on this as a sector. One of the problems of using those kind of exploitative images is that while they’re counter-productive in the long-term, and undermine the cause of the poor, over the short-term they can generate financial rewards for the organisation using them. That means that unless we have some form of effective regulation, there can be a real race to the bottom in terms of fundraising ethics. It’s very dangerous indeed to have no form of regulation over something so important. The idea of linking it into the code and membership of Bond is an excellent one. Maybe a resolution to a future Bond SGM or call a special general Meeting to discuss it…?

  2. I was not at Bond so forgive me for potentially repeating things said there!
    I also think that the idea of linking some form of regulation into the code and membership of Bond is a good one. Additionally I think there is a place for public education here. At the moment unacceptable imagery still ‘sells’ (as Martin notes above); the moment the public stop responding financially to the kind of imagery mentioned in previous articles on here the sooner those NGOs will stop using it. A lot of the dialogue that is had on a regular basis within the sector simply does not cross over into the public realm. As we know from research and reports such as Finding Frames we are trapped in a situation where we really need to work together, across the sector, to change the way we communicate our work. Large organisations, with the financial and media clout to make a difference, should be the first to step forward and say they refuse to use outdated and sometimes grossly distorting images of those they are meant to be working alongside, Unfortunately it is some of the largest organisations that are the worst offenders. A joint public education campaign on this issue run across organisations that support the end of the use of these kind of images would be really helpful. The underlying problem goes beyond unacceptable imagery – it is about finding a way to communicate effectively and honestly with the general public on many issues that we skirt around for fear of losing funding.
    As far as Bond go I am glad this is still on the table and any way it can be kept there would be a good start.

  3. Kevin says:

    Thanks John,
    We have been thinking similar at PhotoVoice. In short, a similar reporting requirement would be a step in the right direction. However, I’m not sure that will be enough – we may need to shame some NGOs into acknowledging the damaging impact of their negative images on the people depicted in the photos and on the UK general public. Big NGOs keep telling us voluntary codes don’t work!

  4. The kind of imagery that we regularly see used by NGOs – essentially development pornography – is fundamentally based on entrenched racist concepts about the people of the global South. Would it not be fair to say that ‘self-regulation’ by people with such views is about as likely to work as ‘self-regulation’ has worked with the police, media and finance? Let racist institutions regulate themselves? Give me a break!

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