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Book launch: Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs

A new book by Birkbeck's Dr Bruna Seu provided material for a fascinating conversation between leading members of humanitarian and international development organisations about how the sector can more effectively gain support for their work and promote public engagement.

On Wednesday 21 June NGO representatives and academics gathered at Birkbeck, University of London to discuss whether the humanitarian relief sector faces a crisis of caring and how NGOs can better connect with the public who support them, at an event to launch Bruna Seu (Birkbeck) and Shani Orgad (LSE) new book Caring in Crisis? Humanitarianism, the Public and NGOs

The discussion was led by a panel of leading fundraisers, communicators and policy advocates from the humanitarian and international development NGO sector who willingly tackled some of the issues raised by the new book, including the limitations of the "hit and run" approach to fundraising, where donors are bombarded with traumatic images designed to elicit financial donations without opportunities for further engagement with the issues at play; the challenge of not only increasing the overall value of donations from within the existing part of the British public which donates, but also the propensity of the wider public to become involved at all; and how to best respond to the desire for connectedness with the recipients of aid, which many participants in the research for the book expressed.

Dr Seu explains: "Caring in Crisis? explores the dynamics within what we refer to as the humanitarian triangle - the three points of which are the public, the beneficiaries of aid and NGOs. What we discovered through our research is that the public become resistant to pity-inducing communications that primarily aim to elicit a financial donation. A donation can be the easiest way for them to disengage without feeling guilty, but this doesn't lead to longer term engagement with the work of the NGO or better understanding of underlying issues and ways they can make a difference. As long as NGOs continue to measure the success of their communications  primarily by income generated it will be hard for them to give equal weighting to initiatives aimed at fostering the greater engagement that the public wants."

The panel were unanimous in their agreement that the level of support for humanitarian causes from the UK public is clear evidence that people do still care, and also that monetary donations have an impact and save lives. However, as Kirsty McNeill (Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Save the Children UK) stated, there is a need to move supporters beyond understanding the impact of their money towards a greater understanding of the impact they can have when they use their support to lobby for political change - such as the Conservative government's U-turn on the number of refugees it would accept in 2016. The book authors and other panel members agreed that measuring and communicating these types of successes is fundamental to the reshaping of the relationships within the humanitarian triangle.

Dr Seu concluded: "Humans are relational beings. We need to tap into that curiosity about the other. When we do that successfully and really help an individual to see the connection between their actions and the lives of those that NGOs are working with, they begin to seek out more and more information to increase their own understanding of the life and reality of that distant person and the relationship can be truly transformative for both giver and recipient."

Ahead of the launch event, Dr Seu and Glen Tarman (Head of Global Advocacy at CARE International), who chaired the panel discussion, gave interviews about the issues raised in the book in the latest episode of the Birkbeck Voices podcast.

Further information

 [Image credit: Paul Downey]

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