Ottobre 19, 2015

Better branding and communication will help action in the field

Better branding and communication will help action in the field

Armed without hard evidence, when the Pakistani government ordered Save the Children to shut down its operations on account of anti-state activities on June 11 2015, Pakistani social media was ripe with debate; sympathy was voiced by those familiar with development while others outside the development circles appeared confused, suspicious or angry. Thanks to pressure from the US and British allies threatening to pull millions of dollars in aid, Save the Children was allowed to reopen, the debate amongst Pakistanis however deepened. Questions of legitimacy and vested interests were ignited on pages of Facebook and Twitter and alleged organizational mismanagement were confused for anti-state activities.


Working in development I am often questioned by the most well informed whether these international NGOs (INGOs) ever do anything but ‘eat up the money’. ‘What are they really doing for us?’ is a question I am routinely asked. ‘Poverty still exists’ they conclude. Others argue that the INGOs are simply working to extend Western stakes, serving only as one of the obstacles for the progress of Pakistan.


There is evidently a troubling amount of distrust stemming from an obvious lack of awareness. Trust is key for the international NGOs to access communities in any country. Without trust, a number of INGOs will have to continue operating with their heads down.


In Pakistan, conspiracy theories, holding the west responsible for underdevelopment, are mainstream dogmas. A large urban and rural public feeling suspicious towards INGO’s work is a real tragedy and shrinks the space for action. However, INGOs contribute to their mystery. They prefer to keep low profiles by avoiding branding for security purposes.


Normally, in the field, branding is important to distinguish INGOS from the state or other warring parties. Paradoxically, this policy is reversed in Pakistan. It is a common fear across NGO workers to be targeted.


Ongoing disputes shows that it is more important than ever to be able to distinguish NGOs as independent, impartial and neutral entities that work for the vulnerable communities. The more the organizations hide, the more suspicion they cause among the local populations, especially within the rural communities.


Reversing this approach to raise the profile and importance of their work within the country can contribute to their legitimacy in Pakistan. USAID for instance continuously promotes its work in Pakistan and they have not yet suffered any attack on their operations.


The lack of trust is generated from the lack of information, which can be curtailed through increased communication activities by the INGOs. More importantly, the information sent out should engage with the audiences through social media, websites and the news. More INGO professionals should come on local news channels to discuss their work and answer questions from the public to wipe away any misconceptions and present a transparent and accountable image. Social media should be used regularly to prompt human interest stories, short videos and messages of the work being done. The messages should be designed in a way that the public can engage with. In addition to dispatching messages of the work done, it is equally important to send out messages of the work that still needs to be done as well as of the potential contribution of the local public.


By engaging the Pakistani youth, UNDP Pakistan for instance has piloted an innovative approach for the promotion of its National Human Development Report for Pakistan. UNDP dedicated Twitter and Facebook pages and enlisted youth volunteers to help develop the report. With 13,000 followers on Facebook they regularly update the youth on their activities, ask questions, put up informative videos and invite them to their workshops in which the youth can engage personally with panelists, which include representatives from the UN, civil society and their government. At their workshops and on the UNDP Pakistan social media pages the appreciation for UNDP’s work is evident. From this initiative, UNDP Pakistan is reaching a large number of people and building a positive light for itself.


These ways of doing things are crucial for the future of INGOs in Pakistan. To increase engagement from the public and awareness concerning their work, they must work on strengthening trust and legitimacy. More branding is required to show the public that they are here to work for the vulnerable communities. More communication between INGOs and the local people is necessary to build a trusting relationship. It is time for INGOs in Pakistan to stop shying away from the public and take responsibility for the work they do. In this way, if a Save the Children style raid were to take place again, the public would side with the INGOs and place the due pressure over their government.

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About Beenisch Tahir

Beenisch Tahir

Beenisch Tahir has a Masters from LSE in Social Policy and Development where her research focused on increasing accountability of aid NGOs towards their beneficiaries using mobile phones. She ahs spent over five years working in Pakistan as a Communications professional during emergency and post emergency phases.

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