Changing a life with just one swipe: the view from the Radi-Aid Awards

26 january 2017

Today's guest blogger is Thea Willoch Njaastad, Vice President in SAIH and Project Manager for Radi-Aid. Thea will be delivering the keynote address at our "Change A Life With Just One Swipe: Challenging Stereotypes in Communicating Development" event discussing the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messaging on Tuesday 31st January 2017. 

For several years, numerous writers, politicians, activists and organizations from the Global South have criticized the way development countries are being portrayed in Western media and in fundraising campaigns. Inspired by this criticism, SAIH started working sporadically with the topic “Our view of the South” in 1999. The topic especially engaged the students in our local chapters around university campuses in Norway, as well as something that often came up in conversations with our partners in Southern Africa. As a small aid organization, mainly run and funded by students, we were in a position where we could criticize our own sector.


After a few awareness campaigns, it was not until we launched the satirical music video Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway in 2012 that the topic spawned wide interest – and more attention than a tiny NGO like SAIH had ever imagined. The singing Africans gathering radiators to the freezing Norwegians spawned a renewed international debate and awareness around the issues of stereotypical images in media and fundraising campaigns. By “turning the tables” we realized had struck a chord, and that it was long overdue for a wider public debate around the images portrayed through fundraising communication.

Stereotypes and oversimplifications lead to poor debates and poor policies. NGO communicators play a crucial role in people’s understanding of development in the world today, and should therefore take a huge responsibility in how we communicate. The single story of a poverty-stricken child, waiting passively for a “white saviour”, is harmful and does not encourage to further action beyond the one-time donation. Fundraising campaigns risk being counterproductive to their own goals if they obscure the actual causes of poverty. We all need to ask ourselves: How can we do it better?

Since 2013, SAIH has awarded the “worst” and “best” fundraising videos through the Radi-Aid Awards. The goal of the awards is to encourage fundraisers to produce informative, empowering, and creative aid communication. This is opposed to the kind of images and videos only widening the gap between those who donate and the recipients of aid. Since first awards in 2013, our international jury have noted that the examples of creative and engaging portrayals in fundraising ads are increasing. Whether or not this is a coincidence, the nominees for the Golden Radiator category demonstrate the many various ways a fundraising campaign can succeed without traditional and stereotypical representations.

On the other side, many fundraising campaigns are still portraying people as passive recipients of help, without the desire or possibility to make a change. “Poverty porn personified”, “promotes deep-rooted perceptions of Western superiority over the South”, the jury noted about the 2016 nominees for the Rusty Radiator Award. With new opportunities within social media and new ways to communicate more instantly than ever, aid organizations potentially reach out to new crowds of people. When the social media scene is changing and these new ways of communicating evolve, the NGOs get a strengthened role as communicators of knowledge. This is a responsibility worth taking care of. Being part of changing the world is harder than just one swipe at your phone.   

As SAIH’s primary expertise is education projects, one important goal when it comes to this specific theme is to engage, educate and raise awareness in the general public about what the world actually looks like. We are not experts in aid communication, but we believe there are better ways to do it, in a dignified, balanced way. Along the way we have discussed and met with many interesting voices on the topic. And it seems like more and more actors are involved with these issues, in different ways. Several have mentioned the Dochas Code of Conduct, and we are very honoured to join the discussion in Ireland.