Is Global Poverty Framed?

A call for a more balanced depiction of development news .

Mirjam Vossen: “If people, in addition to the existing challenges, don’t get to hear about the positive follow-ups, it’s only logical that this will eventually lead to a collective sense of cynicism”. © Image: Jassir de Windt.

Why does an increasingly large number of people have such a negative perception towards the effectiveness of development aid? The Dutch-born media scientist, Mirjam Vossen, recently earned her PhD on a dissertation entitled Framing Global Poverty. In this piece of scholarly work, with a specific emphasis on the Netherlands, Flanders and England, the scientist argues that the answer to this initial question revolves around the choice, made by numerous news agencies and NGOs, of emphasising suffering and leaving out the significant global advances recorded in recent years.

Vossen’s investigation encompassed four sub-studies of which two parts latched on to the relations between media frames versus public opinion. “In my second sub-study, entitled In Search of The Pitiful Victim, the purpose was to examine with what frequency emerging countries are portrayed as powerless and pitiful. In this respect, I did indeed carry out an expended framing analysis with regard to 876 news reports and 284 development aid ads released in the Netherlands, Flanders and England over the last years”. The notable results showed that particularly NGOs based in England build on the depiction of the powerless and pitiful. While in the Netherlands and Flanders the latter occurs to a lesser extent, the study does acknowledge that Dutch and Flemish NGOs and newspapers nourish the dependency relationship between emerging nations and development aid: “I can’t establish a causal link, but it’s plausible that this is the reason why only a small percentage of the Dutch and English population is aware that global poverty is on the decline when it comes to Flanders, I don’t have access to related figures”.

“Perpetuating, either intentionally or unintentionally, the notion that there is no progress, is obviously the biggest stumbling block for raising funds”.

In Vossen’s third sub-study, aimed at England, a strong correlation between media coverage, public knowledge and perceptions on global poverty is proven: “Further research might reveal my hypothesis that this interplay also applies to the Netherlands and Flanders”.

The question now is whether it is financially convenient for development aid organisations, particularly in polarising environments, to elucidate their favourable outcomes, even more, when they are heavily dependent on fundraising or public funding. Says Vossen: “Perpetuating, either intentionally or unintentionally, the notion that there is no progress, is obviously the biggest stumbling block for raising funds. If people, in addition to the existing challenges, don’t get to hear about the positive follow-ups, it’s only logical that this will eventually lead to a collective sense of cynicism”.

At the same time, Vossen is of the conviction that it would not be fair to attribute the blame solely to NGOs after all, it is first and foremost the obligation of news agencies to offer a realistic world-view to the general public. Says Vossen: “Moreover, several NGOs do share the figures and examples of their accomplishments on their sites, newsletters and in their annual year reviews. Though, the effect of these procedural and official actions are not viable as they don’t reach the common man”.

“NGOs should use part of their budget to inform the public about advances and results without simultaneously soliciting donations”.

While imaging cannot be altered overnight, Vossen thinks that there are steps that development aid organisations could put in place. Firstly, by redeploying their communication and advertisement budget. “With this, it’s meant that NGOs should use part of their budget to inform the public about advances and results without simultaneously soliciting donations. Similar public campaigns have existed for several years in countries like Denmark and, recently, the Netherlands under the umbrella of The World’s Best News”, Vossen says. Next, development aid organisations should start matching concrete results to broader trends: “For instance, not only by broadcasting one’s endeavours in curbing famine in Ethiopia but also by pinpointing that currently there are fewer cases of starvation in contrast to 40 years back”. Lastly, Vossen believes that NGOs shall take ownership of their news streams by airing their achievements via the same distribution channels they deploy to call for help: “This is namely a path to engage with a wider audience as opposed to placing this responsibility in the hands of media agencies”.

“Responsible journalism enhances image formation and, most importantly, stimulates people to keep pursuing a problem-solving demeanour”.

When it comes to the media, Vossen, who holds an undergraduate degree in journalism, advocates for responsible journalism. By this, she refers to the understanding whereby due importance is given to major underlying developments and positive trends, in order to establish a more realistic view of the world. As a footnote to this, she indicates that under no circumstances should this lead to journalists refraining from being critical or relinquishing their analytical and inquisitive spirit: “Indeed, throughout the years, thanks to the media several irregularities have been denounced and in turn remedied”. Yet, Vossen is convinced that news coverage, as a whole, would benefit from a more constructive approach. “Responsible journalism enhances image formation and, most importantly, stimulates people to keep pursuing a problem-solving demeanour”. By dint of Vossen’s fourth and last sub-study, an independent research amongst 54 Dutch journalists partly dispelled the belief that reporters are to observe prefixed agenda’s at all times: “There is a large degree of perceived autonomy, at least amongst members of the written press”.

“My criticism on the way in which some news agencies and development aid organisation choose to voice their outcomes, should not be confused with the meaningful work carried out by many of these bodies”.

As a rule, Vossen is firmly convinced that development aid is most relevant in this day and age. “I’ve lived for a considerable amount of years in Malawi in the height of the AIDS crisis, my best friend lost her sister and husband to this disease, only to find out some years later that she was infected as well. Thanks to medical developments, doctors were able to curb the virus”. In the same breath, Vossen refers to figures of the World Bank claiming that, on a global scale, extreme poverty and child mortality rate have been reduced by more than half. Equally, she adverts to the fact that 90% of children worldwide enjoy primary education whereas nine out of ten people have access to clean potable water at present. “In many of these furtherances, development aid has played a catalysing role”, Vossen utters. “That being said, my criticism on the way in which some news agencies and development aid organisation choose to voice their outcomes, should not be confused with the meaningful work carried out by many of these bodies”.

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