These are testing times for NGOs. As the number of migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe soars, aid groups have come under fierce criticism from European politicians and officials who accuse them of hampering efforts to stem the influx.
In Hungary, despite pleas from human rights groups, the government passed legislation this month to require NGOs that receive foreign financing to disclose their donors, in a move critics have said is intended to stifle independent points of view. The move echoes Russia’s Foreign Agents Law which has seen the reputation of hundreds of NGOs tarnished since it came into force in 2012.
More strikingly, this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer showed a decline in trust in NGOs in 21 out of 28 countries. In 11 counties NGOs are now less trusted than business. This suggests trust in the overall aid system is in decline. Inevitably that poses a risk to those most in need of humanitarian help.
The world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War Two with more than 20 million people in four countries facing starvation and famine, according to the UN. Conflicts and persecution in places like Syria and South Sudan have left a record 65.6 million people uprooted from their homes. The need for agencies whose sole focus is to protect the world’s most vulnerable and help to deliver positive action to the benefit of society cannot be in doubt.
So, what has turned the tide for NGOs at a time when they are most needed?
To answer the question, we need to look at what an NGO looks like today compared to what they looked like at the start of the millennium. When the Trust Barometer was first launched NGOs were the most trusted institution by a high margin, well ahead of business, government and media. Their reputation was based on how they met consumer expectations for moral authority.
Since then, many NGOs have evolved from being a group of underfunded activists to behaving like multinational corporations and have lost touch with the public. Where once they were expected to hold governments to account, today they are too closely linked to governments, often their prime source of funding. Considering a spate of scandals in the development sector, including tax avoidance and corruption, NGOs have become synonymous with the very reasons why the established order has been rejected by so many in recent years.
As NGOs have become part of the fabric of governance, they have also become ever more accountable to solving the humanitarian problems the world faces. The desperate plight of the dispossessed has become a tragic ubiquity and the reality is that NGOs promise much but not enough is seen to be delivered.
What are the steps that civil society needs to take to redress the trust deficit? A big part of the problem is how they communicate, who they communicate with and the message they communicate.
There are four steps that NGOs should consider:
First, people need to hear about the human impact of their work. All too often the media narrative is one mired in politics. Hearing from people on the ground rather than the slick lobbyists and fundraisers at the helm will be important.
It’s a sad fact that as humanitarian crises endure beyond the news cycle people get compassion fatigue. NGOs shouldn’t just tell negative stories, but also stories of hope and progress. The sheer scale of crises in the world today can seem insurmountable but if NGOs can articulate stories of individuals and communities that have been helped it will go a long way to encouraging a more positive engagement.
Second, NGOs, like any other institution, need to ‘talk with’ rather than ‘talk at’ their audiences. Moral authority should not be a licence for being sanctimonious. Humanitarian action is a nuanced subject and NGOs need to be balanced and open to debate. They operate on behalf of people who have opinions, ideas and solutions. There are grassroots activists unfettered by institutional bureaucracy who galvanise positive action every day. Listening to and respecting actors at every level and on every side of the argument will go a long way to improving trust.
Third, NGOs need to publicly set measurement targets that are better understood. NGOs fret endlessly about measuring impact and they can lose sight of the fact that they should be accountable to the world’s disfranchised rather than their donors. Development doesn’t happen overnight and it is not always visible in the way that donors demand a tangible return on investment. NGOs have a financial incentive to focus their efforts on achieving immediate accomplishments. But by focusing on quick wins NGOs can be diverted from achieving durable results. NGOs need to challenge the conventional wisdom about what constitutes success and articulate messages about long term impact.
The final point is the need to reframe the NGO narrative around multi-stakeholder partnerships. NGOs need to work with the private sector more than ever. After some teething troubles, the model is a proven success if they work together with a common objective of social change. But with trust in business at an all-time low, NGOs risk being besmirched by association. The common assumption is that multi-stakeholder partnerships are too self-serving – with corporates getting CSR kudos and NGOs gaining new funds. That is a very reductive perspective.
The ineffectual response to the refugee crisis is testament to the fact that the system fundamentally needs to change. NGOs need to work with businesses to co-develop new solutions to complex humanitarian challenges. The narrative needs to emphasise that combining the capabilities of each player to deliver deep societal value NGOs can yet again be seen as facilitating innovation in the interest of all.
Seventeen years ago, Edelman’s inaugural Trust Barometer attributed the high levels of trust people felt for NGOs to their ability to take their message to the consumer and having a clear agenda. In the intervening years, NGOs have not only evolved into very different entities but they have adopted communications practices that have distanced them from the public and diminished trust.
An erosion of trust in NGOs poses a very real threat to the financial and practical support so critically needed by people at the frontline of humanitarian response. As the world faces the greatest humanitarian crisis in a lifetime, compounded by international anti-foreign aid posturing, NGOs need to change how they engage with their audiences to regain their moral authority and fulfill their essential purpose.