‘We the Helpers’. White Saviourism or a Smart Defence of Aid?

January 26, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Got a very thought-provoking email from Romilly Greenhill at ONE Campaign over the weekend.  She was drawing my attention to the Aid Alliance, a group of NGOs (including Oxfam) working together to build public support for UK aid. This week it launched something called ‘We the Helpers’. Some thoughts:

First the message: Aid is helping. ‘From aid workers to donors to supporters like you, we are all the helpers. Today, millions more people have access to education, medicine, food and clean water. Decades of experience and progress mean the world is better now than it has ever been.’

We’ll skip over tricky issues of attribution, but in the current climate, this kind of message is likely to provoke questions (sometimes justified) about white saviourism. The commonest reaction amongst aid advocates is simply to back off and not try to make the case for aid (at least in public) for fear of being attacked as a neocolonial. But that just means aid is all the easier to cut. Do we really think cutting aid budgets helps poor and vulnerable communities? Has the scrapping of DFID and the 0.7% commitment in the UK helped anyone in need? Quite the opposite, in my opinion. And the campaign is very insistent that this is about helping, i.e. supporting domestic efforts to improve people’s lives.

The video (below) is similarly discomforting: lots of standard images of aid helping people who need help. The helpers are nearly all non-white, but the video is a logo-fest for INGOs, UN agencies and others. OK, but back to my question, some critics of aid may think people would be better off without any of that, but I think they are few in number – surely the challenge is how to reform the existing aid institutions to make them more effective and accountable to the communities they serve? And you can’t reform something that doesn’t exist, because all its funding’s been cut.

I was also interested in the rather sophisticated targeting behind the campaign. This from Romilly:

‘The point of this content is to reach a very specific UK audience – what we’re calling ‘conscientious cynics.’ This group is transactionally engaged in discussions on aid but have lost any emotional connection or belief in progress. They are white retirees (60+) living in urban areas across the country (not London). Many are grandparents, and family is hugely important to them. They’re financially comfortable and of a higher social grade (ABC). Conservative/Brexit leaning and proud to be British. Our insight work tells us they don’t feel connected to a sense of progress, so they’ve stopped believing they can make a difference.

We are aware that some people may not like the idea of aid as ‘help’, and to be honest I agree with them in many ways. But we’re really trying to meet people where they are at – as per the above, this group is quite Conservative and Brexit leaning, quite traditional in their views. So we’re really trying to meet them halfway, and have spent years doing insight work and focus group and testing on what works.’

I’d be interested in your views, but do please take the trouble to look at the website and watch (and reflect on) the video before jumping in.

Here’s the video again:

January 26, 2022
Duncan Green