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Finding Frames Report - Engaging in Global Poverty

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19 January 2012

Finding Frames is a report about the ways in which the UK public engage with global poverty issues, and about how development NGOs and other stakeholders might deepen and extend that engagement. Having identified the problems, the report deliberately does not prescribe solutions; instead it sets out a programme of work which NGOs will need to undertake in collaboration if it is to achieve the transformational change in how the public engage with poverty which we feel is long overdue.

By Andrew Darnton

The central thesis of Finding Frames can be outlined as follows:

By a number of measures, levels of engagement with global poverty among the UK public are static or falling. For example, the longterm trend is for around 25% of the public to say, in research surveys, that they are 'very concerned' about global poverty. In 2005, in the build-up to Make Poverty History, these levels reached 32%. But they have fallen ever since, and are now back at 24%. Meanwhile, DFID's segmentation model suggests that the proportion of the most engaged segment of the public has shrunk by a third since April 2008. It now stands at only 14%.

In terms of how the UK public understands and engages with global poverty, it can be said they are stuck in roughly the same place as they were in 1985. The most widespread model for public engagement has been labelled as the 'Live Aid Legacy', which casts the UK public in the role of 'dominant giver', and Southern publics in the role of 'grateful receiver'. In this model, the causes of poverty are internal to poor countries, and nothing to do with global politics. All the UK public can do is give money, and invariably they believe that some, if not most of the money does not get through to those in need; hence Africa in particular is described as "a bottomless pit". In the UK public's mind Africa is stuck, but at the same time the UK public is stuck in this transaction frame for development.

The practices of the development NGO sector are deeply implicated in this stalemate. Data on voluntary income to development NGOs shows that (at least until the current downturn) they were very successful in building their revenues. The parallel academic literature points to how, from the 1990s, NGOs in the UK adopted more savvy commercial practices, which increased their fundraising income but changed the nature of their relationship with supporters. This is described as the rise of the NGO as 'protest business', which is accompanied by a shift to 'armslength' or 'chequebook participation' by their supporters. Campaigning and fundraising practices have lowered the barriers to participation, but at the same time they have strengthened the transaction frame for engaging with development.

Make Poverty History can be seen as an opportunity to break out of the transaction frame. By rallying around the call for 'Justice not Charity', it attempted to disrupt the stubborn misperception that 'all we can do is give money'. Yet, as it turned out, the transaction frame proved too strong. Despite the campaign strategy, members of the public remained convinced that it must be raising money, from all those whitebands and text messages. When in the end, Live8 became the finale to the activity around the G8, the public's certainty about the transactional model was confirmed. Inadvertently, MPH had reinforced the Live Aid Legacy.

This analysis of sector practices encourages us to look at the problem of public engagement through the lens of values theory. There is a substantial body of evidence which shows how different values inter-relate, and if we want people to engage with 'bigger than self' problems like climate change or global poverty, we need to play to their intrinsic values (such as a sense of equality, social justice, or unity with nature). Conversely, enhancing the status of Northern 'givers' relative to Southern 'receivers', and delivering messages focused on giving money or taking easy actions will only discourage people from following more altruistic and intrinsic motivations in future. This is the central thesis of the recent Common Cause report, and Finding Frames adopts (and adapts) that way of working in the context of development NGOs.

Values are by their nature abstract, and are understood to be in tension with one another. Frames theory offers a way both to negotiate those tensions, and to embed the positive values for building public engagement within NGOs' practices. Frames can be understood as chunks of factual and procedural information in the mind; they literally structure how we think. In recent years, the power of frames as tools for political campaigning has been identified by George Lakoff, a linguistics academic turned 'cognitive activist' in the US. He has identified a number of 'deep frames' which inform how we behave, how institutions are constructed, and how we think and talk about the world. These deep frames essentially represent moral worldviews and as such they determine how ideas and experiences are understood (or 'framed').

In preparing the Finding Frames report, we worked in a team to identify the prevailing deep frames underpinning development NGOs' practices, and contrasted these with the deep frames that we would need to work with if we wanted to reinforce positive values whilst at the same time breaking the dominance of the transaction frame. The positive deep frames include models of participatory democracy (not elite governance) and non-hierarchical networks (not the moral order frame). Following from these deep frames, we have identified current ways of 'surface framing' our communications with the public which now appear deeply problematic. These negative surface frames include 'charity' 'aid' and 'development'; our conclusion is that we need to find new frames for presenting these ubiquitous concepts.

The wider implications for sector practices are no less fundamental. NGOs may need to move beyond the identification of themselves as charities; they may also need to look at their longer term objectives, beyond fundraising. Fundraisers in turn may need to think about how to balance their immediate needs for income with longer term strategies for customer relationship management (for instance, reducing churn). Campaigners should also move supporters on from easy actions (including 'clicktivism') to richer, more two-way models of engagement and network building.

Finding Frames does not however prescribe solutions. Values and frames thinking will throw up different solutions everywhere it is applied. It is also vital that the sector develops strategies for re-engaging the public together. If we are looking for a rebalancing of values across society, and for a transformation in the way the UK public engages with global poverty, it will take many NGOs working in collaboration, both within and beyond the development sector. The Finding Frames report should be understood as the first step in a programme of work involving deliberation and debate within the sector, with partners in academia and the media, in government and in philanthropy, to find new frames - and to break the Live Aid Legacy for good.