Singer Bob Geldof in Ethiopia. Pictures of starving children have been a staple since the Ethiopian famine of 1983 to 85. Photograph: TODAY / Rex Features
If the first casualty of war is truth, the first casualty of a disaster situation is complexity.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with a New York Times journalist who complained that NGOs had represented the situation in Haiti too simply and optimistically. No one, for example, had brought up land tenure, which quickly revealed itself to be one of the major challenges understood by few in the post-earthquake confusion. I pointed out that my organisation, Global Communities, had spoken about land tenure almost immediately – but nobody listened. Instead, the media focused on stories of desperate chaos or children miraculously pulled from rubble. We agreed that poor reportage is a hungry mouth that both sides feed. But there is no point in complaining about journalistic practices until we,communications professionals, first examine our own.
This applies to how we present natural disasters like the Haiti earthquake and protracted human disasters like Syria. It also applies to long-term poverty, and how we represent entire continents such as Africa or South America. So how do we better communicate the complex conditions in the developing world, which so few people see for themselves? And why do so few organisations even attempt to communicate complexity?
Traditionally, NGOs vacillate between guilt and hope in their communications. Pictures of starving children have been a staple since the Ethiopian famine of 1983 to 85. In the past decade, however, guilt has taken a back seat and instead, we are bombarded with carefully chosen images of success and productivity. We hear stories of microfinance lifting people out of poverty or, with the new philanthropy of the dotcom entrepreneurs, the transformative power of text messaging and Twitter. These methods of communication are driven by the need to raise funds for genuinely vital work. But they don't show the full picture. After all, a story of someone's life changed by a loan can be rapidly reversed when their house in a slum is bulldozed or their family member dies because they didn't have adequate healthcare.
What we are selling is old and tired. And it isn't working: overall funding for global development organisations is decreasing internationally; NGOs have been struggling to counter criticism of microfinance; the earthquake in Haiti has inspired a whole industry of NGO criticism; and traditional attempts in the US to raise funds for humanitarian work in Syria are failing in the light of an increasingly complex crisis. We are underestimating our audience.
We know that innovation is the key to new sales, and as an industry we are always talking about innovation. So why not be innovative and communicate openly the multifaceted issues facing the developing world? Why not let the new voices from the global south speak? Where is the disconnect between what we do and see, and what and how we communicate?
Part of the problem lies with the communications industry. It is driven by the need to sell, and is measured in web hits and social media shares. But increasingly the focus is not on content creation but the medium for the content. The PR industry, for example, publishes endless articles on the best vehicles for delivering your content – social media, traditional media, owned media – but rarely on the actual content. Similarly, the communications industry has mistakenly focused on innovative methods of content delivery, while totally ignoring innovative content. A stale message in a press release is just as stale on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the global development discourses rarely penetrate communications departments, not least because they are written in impenetrable pseudo-academic jargon, what the Economist memorably coined "NGOish." We have to work with development professionals to unpack their linguistic horrors of value chains, gender mainstreaming and capacity building to find out what that actually means and then communicate it effectively.
Then there is also control and convenience. On each side of the Atlantic respectively, it is the same big brands, the same talking heads, and the same messages that are repeated. Journalists know where they can call to get a rent-a-quote for their article and it is usually from within the same time zone. Even though there are thousands of articulate global development professionals from emerging economies on our staff, big brands demand on-message speakers, trained for the western media: put on a new voice and they might not say what you want them to say. Control and convenience outweigh conviction.
The status quo is not good enough. NGOs are increasingly concerned about their relevance in the future and are examining their business models, and rightly so. Communications professionals need to take a lead role in this. Good media coverage and honest examination of complex issues are not mutually exclusive. Yale's Innovations for Poverty Action has succeeded in bringing complex issues in aid and development to the forefront of global development media coverage. Most of my own organisation's greatest communications successes have been based around complex issues such as urban disasters and allowing voices from the global south to speak about their own situation.
As long as poverty exists, so too should NGOs. But until we acknowledge that the solutions to poverty are complex and begin communicating them as such, we will appear increasingly irrelevant. What we are communicating is not working. Let's move beyond guilt and optimism and try something new – complex and sometimes troubling reality. David Humphries is director of global communications for Global Communities. This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To get more articles like this direct to your inbox, sign up free to become a member of the Global Development Professionals Network