Videos in Humanitarian Aid: Boon or Bane?

YouTube is the 3rd most visited website in the world, and they have indeed revolutionised the way information is created and shared. A video can be a very tactile, very subtle and very convenient way of transmitting information, and Calls to Action can frequently inspire a metaphorically sedentary citizen to get up off the couch and Do Something. This is because video is a very visceral medium, and needs no words that can be mistranslated or misunderstood, and carries powerful imagery.

No wonder that loads of non-profits have jumped onto the video bandwagon, as an add-on to their usual awareness, advocacy and fund-raising work. YouTube has an excellent resource for non-profits, to help them use video as a medium to transmit their messages. This is probably the first rule of communications: use the medium that is preferred by the people you want to reach. If you want to Get Out the Vote among millennials, then YouTube is definitely the right medium. Esteemed (and large) organisations like Oxfam have used YouTube (in this case, featuring Scarlett Johannsen) to tell their stories very effectively.

The traditional measure of the impact/reach of a video is the number of views or likes. In humanitarian aid, a more tangible measure of impact would be monetisation or an increase in volunteerism. Linking the video to specific calls to action will enable the monetisation of the advocacy work, for example by putting a button to Google Wallet, or a crowdfunding site like indiegogo.com. Links could also be provided to allow mobilisation of volunteers, or writing a letter to a Senator.
The flip side of video as a medium has not yet been fully dissected. The term “poverty porn” has been coined to describe the potentially degrading effects of using ever-more-extreme images of poverty and human suffering, in order to rally donations or support for a humanitarian cause. It could be a borderline case of exploitation, not helped by the cacophony of competing voices in today’s world, that requires any aid agency to speak in an even louder voice than others, just to be even heard.

To build on what Emily Roenigk wrote in her article, perhaps a sixth reason why we should be careful about using extremely graphic videos to highlight a humanitarian disaster, is that these graphic videos create an artificial distance between the eventual aid recipient or aid donor. The aid donor may develop a “savior complex” that leads the donor to disengage from the reality that what’s needed is more than just throwing money at a problem. “Armchair philanthropy” could be another word for it.

In essence though, the use of videos is just the cultural zeitgeist of our times. Aid agencies should learn to work with it, as it can be more useful than not.

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