Stop branding aid
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Stop branding aid

Stop branding aid

Passing through the small rural village of Yarpa Town in River Cess County, Liberia, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the whole town owed its existence to the altruism of sponsors from overseas. The dilapidated clinic announces itself as a gift ‘From the American People’, the hand-pump well around which children clamour was ‘Funded by the EU, in partnership with UNDP’ and the community hall is blazoned with the Stars and Stripes.

In a country such as Liberia, where the US and China lead international donors in financing a high proportion of government funding and public services, it’s impossible to miss their slogans, logos and flags, plastered on buildings, along the sides of cars and on peeling signs spread out along every roadway approaching a village anywhere in the country. Everything is branded. The home of the National Elections Commission in Monrovia, that symbolic heart of a country’s democracy and independence, is clearly labelled as a gift ‘From the American People, to the Liberian people’.

All of this branding serves as an inescapable and depressing reminder of the dependency of the nation and its inability to provide for its own. It is a constant message: you live on hand-outs. Your basic needs, as much as they are met, are only done so through the charity of faceless others. Those critical enablers of development – ownership, self-determination, accountable governance and even national pride – are buried under the banners and badges of international agencies.

The US has for a long time branded its relief and development materials with the handshake logo of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the words “from the American people” and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) now labels all assistance from the UK with the Union Jack. DFID say that this policy “will help to drive home the message that Britain deserves credit for the results that UK aid delivers.”

When introducing this new policy, then Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell explained further: “It is right that people in villages, towns and cities around the world can see by whom aid is provided. British aid is achieving results of which everyone in the United Kingdom can be proud. And I am determined that, from now on, Britain will not shy away from celebrating and taking credit for them.”

This position resonates clearly with the example set by the US, where the head of USAID, Rajiv Shah, claims that highly visible branding is necessary to ensure transparency. Writing in the Huffington Post, he states that “We believe that people in Haiti, Pakistan and elsewhere have a right to know where their assistance is coming from. And American taxpayers have a right to know where their dollars are going.” People in Haiti or Pakistan really care where assistance comes from and are supposed to feel indebted in some way – is that the idea? The US sees foreign aid as being integral to their national security; a factual if morally debatable reality.

But, does the US really earn itself a meaningfully better image across the world through doling out those handshakes images? And, if that image makeover is so important, is this really the right way to achieve it; using development or humanitarian aid as an attempt to buy good will? There is no evidence that this works. In Pakistan, where the US has long suffered a serious image problem, aid workers are keen to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the Star Spangled Banner. A consortium of international NGOs has asked the Obama administration to consider other alternatives to the usual branding on the grounds that it in fact makes their work harder and more dangerous. There the USAID logo inspires more animosity than goodwill, regardless of what it comes attached to.

The other supposed objective of all of those Stars and Stripes is to ensure that taxpayers know where their money is going; something all those flaking billboards in Yarpa Town cannot achieve. How many rich world taxpayers take their vacations in Liberia, note down all the good they have done while they’re there and use subsequent holidays to continue their survey in the next impoverished nation on the list? The explicit branding of aid fails to meet its stated objectives, but it does real harm as well as no good. Branding aid actively undermines the aid effectiveness agenda that is gaining such pace elsewhere across the development sphere.

UKaid for Chile on a RAF C17 plane. Credit: DfiD

This agenda, which both the US and the UK are active in pushing forwards, emphasises the need to ensure local country ownership, to build local country institutions, to focus on outputs and outcomes rather than inputs, and to separate international aid from domestic agendas.

Branding aid runs counter to all of these principles: undermining ownership and diluting the social contract between citizens and their state, visibly bypassing those local institutions that ideally would be providing those services, focusing on inputs (“from the American people”) and promoting domestic interests (politicians and taxpayers getting credit) over international and humanitarian ones.

The Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington has criticised USAID for their overt branding. Criticisms have included the fact that the Agency is so driven by the need for Congressional support that ‘brand-ability’ starts to drive development strategy and funding priorities rather than the other way around. Members of Congress like schools and hospitals with logos and flags all over them; they are less keen on justice reform, economic empowerment or human rights that can’t be photographed.

The international aid system is a highly complex mash of different agendas, and the answers will never be simple. Some would argue that there is no such thing as true altruism as there is always benefit to the giver. But, even if the branding of aid does result in credit where it’s due, would this benefit to donors be worth the cost to the people receiving aid? It’s doubtful that the people of Yarpa Town would think so. We need to go back to the very core of what aid is all about and ask the question, who is it supposed to be for anyway?


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Josie Stewart

Josie Stewart has worked in a variety of roles in government, consultancy and the not-for-profit sector in West Africa, the Gulf region, the UK and Australia. She is currently taking time out studying at the UK Institute of Development Studies, where she is deeply engaged trying to figure out what she really thinks about international development and the whole industry that surrounds it. She finds that writing really helps in this process, hence her input to this blog.

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32 thoughts on “Stop branding aid

  1. […] and ensuring the brand of the organisation is directly connected and visible in relief efforts for recognition and transparency. Non-profits have also found social media to be pivotal to ongoing fundraising efforts – with […]

  2. […] interested to know if there are many who would disagree with this article on why branding international aid is a net negative – privately, at least. Publicly,  […]

  3. […] for International Development (DfID) that all aid carry the department’s logo. Josie Stewart thinks branding is a bad idea, being patronising and perhaps driving the funding of aid towards more brandable projects. Jennifer […]

  4. Branding definitely has pros and cons to it. In this case, branding is overblown which results in negative branding. It is more like campaigning.

  5. […] a recent post on WhyDev?, Josie Stewart provides a sharp critique of the branding practices of aid agencies such […]

  6. If branding had anything to do with transparency and accountability, they would print the salaries of the executives on the food packages. Do I sound cynical?

  7. […] her first post for WhyDev, Josie Stewart explores an interesting subject: the branding of […]

  8. […] interested to know if there are many who would disagree with this article on why branding international aid is a net negative – privately, at least. Publicly,  […]

  9. Just as my organization thanks it’s donors publicly, I think there is something nice about USAID recognizing that it is the “American people” and our tax dollars that are paying for the aid. Better to include that then just label it “USAID.”

    1. Josie Stewart

      Hi Tanya…. thanks for your input, and for standing up for the ‘American people’ bit. I completely agree with you that it’s important to recognize the taxpayers, and I also completely agree with the argument that taxpayers have every right to know how their money is being spent.

      The problem is, branding aid confuses this valid need for citizens of donor countries to know where their money has gone with the idea that citizens of beneficiary countries need to know where their money comes from. These two issues are totally not the same thing. My argument is that it’s just not necessary to have the second (harmful) part in order to have the first (important) part, because the means of communicating with the two audiences are completely different and the citizens of the donor country will never see the sign on a hut in an African village.

  10. The origin of all aid should keep it’s present transparency while decreasing the glorification part. Donors need to work alongside the governments of these countries to keep them on the track of justice and human rights. A resonable carrot and stick policy becomes a must but the majority of aid should go through the government itself. That way we start strengthening the institution and it’s important for the people to start developing trust and fairh on their own governments. Building the capacities of the populace is another important part and taken seriously even though it might hurt the prospective job hunters of the western hemisphere. Finally, the reason aid has been linked to hand outs is mostly because of the inability of the donor countries lack of understanding of the context. When development projects are designed it has to be done with an equal participation of both the countries involved. Educating the donor citizens can become equally important as the receivers.

    1. Josie Stewart

      Thanks Chandan. Personally, I couldn’t agree with you more! (see my comments above regarding the difference between transparency for donors and messaging to recipients)

    2. Josie Stewart

      Thinking about this further (thanks for all the comments to prompt deeper reflection!), I wanted to make a couple more points regarding the issue of donor-country political demand for branding.

      Firstly I wanted to explore a little more the security implications of branding, as I touched on in relation to Pakistan. Because, unfortunately for donor-country politicians keen on their Kodak moments, branding really can impact on the security of aid workers in the field. Voters back home aren’t too keen on losing aid workers to foreign kidnappers, and the insistence of donor governments on increasing profile along global battle lines has affected the safety of people on the ground.

      A report published last year by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) claims that aid workers in Afghanistan report feeling safer when using locally rented vehicles than they do in the conspicuously-branded four-wheel drives that are meant to whisk them safely in and out of their fortified compounds. The same report highlights the fact that in Darfur and Chad, the use of local vehicles is reported to have significantly reduced car-jackings against international NGOs, while reports from Mauritania suggest that many aid workers opt to buy their own personal cars to avoid being targeted by Al-Qaeda while driving branded NGO or UN cars. But by toeing the policy line and raising their proud flags regardless of who’s watching, aid workers can risk their own lives as well as their ability to help others.

      But it’s not just security concerns that can force NGOs to ditch their branding – political necessity can also demand it. When Cyclone Nargis struck the densely populated coast of Burma in 2008, the ruling military government at the time refused to allow any organisations to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the area. The timing of the disaster, one week before a national referendum on a controversial new constitution, meant that the humanitarian response faced an intensely politicised environment and a highly suspicious ruling regime. While many NGOs were tied up in webs of regulation and restriction, others simply lost their donor brands and NGO logos and sent their local Burmese staff to work under the radar, branded t-shirts hidden away while the staff worked shoulder to shoulder with local people to get aid to disaster-hit areas.

      Just two more arguments I wanted to add. I’d be really interested in any other reflections people may have on branding in terms of security or access….

      1. Robert Maletta

        Definitely, branding can impact upon security and access. However, it’s not always obvious in what way. In Somalia, keeping a low profile and moving around without the obvious NGO/UN branding is often adopted as a way to do business more safely. In contested areas branding by certain donors or agencies could lead to trouble, especially if that donor or agency was viewed by a warring faction as inimical to their cause. On the other hand, some agencies got a certain amount of community “protection” or acceptance from branding aid that benefited the community as a whole (e.g. water provision), especially where the community felt that they “owned” the service . However, on certain activities such as trainings or rallies around “sensitive” issues (such as peacebuilding, governance, human rights, and gender) some international agencies asked their local counterparts not to advertise their logos (as sponsors). To brand or not to brand should be based upon a nuanced understanding of local conditions and not just a response to a blanket requirement by donors (or agency headquarters).

  11. hilary

    I work for an international NGO. Late last year we gave emergency relief food and other items to the pastoralists of northern Kenya after the drought. Those affected were given electronic ‘smart’ cards to use at local shops (good for the local economy, while beneficiaries retain some dignity when collecting food). It was interesting to note that when the beneficiaries turned up to collect the food, many came with USAID branded empty sacks (for carrying the food items). This alerted us to the fact that, despite efforts to the contrary, we might have been duplicating something USAID was already doing, which was a good thing to know. On the other hand the sacks may have been old, or simply acquired to carry the food. But what was clear was that the recipients had probably become used to receiving handouts and knew that if they had to carry it home they would need a bag.

  12. Whatever the good or bad aspects of branding aid are we’ll never be rid of. Especially because the moment you say we should go back and evaluate who aid is for someone will inevitably come along and pile on the argument “well, couldn’t we just…” in an effort to add more elements to the work. This is especially true as 1) policy makers are the ones to make the demand for it, regardless of good and bad impacts and 2) Communications people (myself included) are assisted by a clear and readily identifiable brand when doing our work.

    Yes branding is used as an argument for transparency, but so is much of the paperwork and processes behind today’s work. It’s why M&E has become such a large part of how work is accomplished and why more work is conducted. These days I don’t think you’ll separate one from another particularly given how much social media and the perceived necessity there is to “brand yourself” and work on your “platform”. Aid work is doing much the same.

    Whether it’s “Likes” or search results, or even the very irony which results in this discussion, branding has aided in the discussion of aid and development and in fact enabled WhyDev to do much of what it does. Branding is in some ways the more positive spin to photogenic poverty – why show the problem when you can show the solution, which is very reminiscent of USAID success stories.

    Branding also enables people and organizations to see what others are doing, for as we know too often there just isn’t that communication and coordination. So if a vehicle is donated to a government agency or a local organization by USAID and ECHO comes onto the scene they won’t be pouring over the books asking the question “How did you afford a new Landcruiser?” Is it the best solution to that particular problem, no. But it goes some way towards dealing with it.

    As for the purchasing of goodwill – why the hell not? Yes the US has quite the dichotomous foreign policy but would you rather them just drop bombs and forego all aid? We can rant and rave about the US, its foreign policy, and the branding of aid (albeit a lot of times it comes off as mere jealousy of how well the US has done and for so long too) but there is no reset switch. We take the good and the bad, and like the rest of the sectors of the aid world communications will have to make the best of a bad situation as use branding to its advantage.

    1. Josie Stewart

      Gregory, thanks for your comments, it’s really good to hear the perspective of a professional in development communications (which I am not at all!). I’d be really interested to hear your views in relation to my argument above (in response to the comment from Tanya) that branding aid mixes up the two issues and audiences of donor transparency and recipient benefit. Communications needs to target different audiences for different purposes, surely? Forget the arguments about all the harm it does – how does branding in African villages help donors?

    2. Josie Stewart

      I keep posting a response to you Gregory but the website doesn’t seem to want to publish it! I was keen to hear more from your experience in development communications, and understand your views on targeting in particular – the need for it being in donor countries, not recipients

      1. I think a lot of it has to do with media consumption, even more so now with social media which is supposed to be about the discussion. We aim to get the public involved so that they can make a more informed decision in their donation, voting, and other behaviors. Branding enables the work we do to be identified by them so that, good and bad, they can decide what’s working. It’s not a mere matter to let them simply take us on our word.

        Branding also protects us when it comes to that work, as others cannot take credit for the work and then potential ruin a name because they’ve gone on and done some shoddy work. That very thing is where the benefit for a village occurs – the people on the ground can identify who did what and take part in the selection of which organizations work in their community. It also enables them and governments to approach organizations about doing work.

        So the question is, “Shouldn’t those on the ground know who to hold accountable?”

        And as far as “From the American People” that’s a pretty innocuous phrase and to my mind harmless (and not just because I am American). It does not call for thanks or deference, but simply acknowledges that one set of people is helping another. It doesn’t even ask the recipient to respect or accept certain values or conditions but says that through it all the need of humanity is being recognized. Of course, the implementation to get to the place where a plaque can be put up is often where things go wrong.

        1. Josie Stewart

          Fair points – and I’m sure Rajiv Shah and many others would agree with you – but I still don’t buy the idea that branding in remote villages increases accountability to rich-world voters/taxpayers .in any way at all. The audiences are different…. and literally miles apart. And regarding people on the ground knowing who to hold accountable… surely they should be holding their government accountable?

          1. A good brand/logo is readily identifiable across all cultures and languages which also means that those who are illiterate or simply not versed in another language can identify something. it’s why McDonald’s and Coke can be found so many places even if they aren’t serving up anything worthwhile. The accountability for locals comes from the fact that an organization becomes readily recognizable, rather than assuming that any and all foreigners are with that one particular group.

            As for rich-world voters/taxpayers it’s very much a numbers thing. Show a bunch of pictures with a logo found throughout it and you can easily say that the government/organization has done something. Where as a building, of the local design, could be anything and everything and could simply be a photo taken from the internet in desperation to say “hey we did something”. Of course those who actually care will do their research and look at the M&E reports, but the vast majority of people don’t care that much.

            When it comes to holding their governments accountable… that’s a cultural thing. I’m in Cambodia and there’s a lot that the government here does that is down right despicable. Who’s holding them accountable? No one with few exceptions. How do you go about holding anyone accountable when it’s a culture of never accepting blame or acknowledging mistakes? That doesn’t meant that the people shouldn’t be offered the chance to hold us accountable just because they can’t hold others to better standards.

            In some ways one could argue that good branding is increasing accountability but also good governance because it’s imparting a culture of expectation.

  13. Thanks for the article Josie. I think the process of branding can undermine the important role of collaboration in development projects. I also think it is a logistical nightmare when trying to do projects with multiple funding sources. The size & placement of the logos becomes such a political and time-consuming process, and it is not always clear if this means anything to people who view/use the final products.

    In saying that, I have seen some positive examples of branding, when local schools actively ask to use NGO’s logos (on t-shirts, in buildings) as a symbol of partnership and commitment to work together.

    1. Josie Stewart

      Thanks for your input. I wanted to pick up on your point about positive examples, because I do accept that branding can be a good thing… occasionally, and in the right circumstances. In some contexts I have known branding and visibility can actually open doors and provide safe passage to staff, making the job of aid workers both easier and safer. So perhaps the answer is flexibility, based on the different requirements of different contexts. My argument is that aid effectiveness loses out too much to global politics, but you’re definitely right that this isn’t always the case. Although I would say that in assessing any context, the starting point should always be remembering that, ultimately, for any development project to be ‘successful’ the role of the development agency has to become invisible.

  14. Well written. The “brandability” assessment is a major concern. Not mentioned in this article, but equally concerning I think, is the competitiveness between donor countries the branding agenda encourages. It appears from the article above that UKAID branding popped up almost as a response, though very late, to USAID branding.

    When most recently in Bougainville, I heard stories of one donor government aid agency (sorry not naming them, but the clever might guess) getting very upset that Japan had funded the roads and bridges. This was a project “we” wanted to fund and the signs up and down the highway were a great opportunity for branding here. One suspects this disappointment might also be partly because aid is so closely tied to foreign relations and Bougainville are re-investigating their mining options again.

    There may also have been an issue of an unimaginative donor agency who didn’t know how to replace a potential big expenditure on infrastructure with effective community development which takes real work.

    1. Josie Stewart

      Thanks for your input Bjöyce… you raise really good points. The competition between donors – again the ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ is a very real aspect of this which as you explain it relates to the point I was getting about in the blog regarding brand-ability driving donor strategies rather than the other way round. The aid effectiveness agenda so clearly stresses the need to separate aid from domestic concerns but at the same time global political realities are pulling things back the other way – this is the contradiction that prompted my closing question regarding who it’s all for anyway.

  15. Sally

    In countries where I have worked, aid branding is often a case of keeping up with the Joneses – namely USAID. USAID is so effective in their branding that people and governments dramatically overestimate the amount of development assistance that the US government actually provides, and underestimate contributions from other donor agencies that don’t brand their projects. The branding of projects that I have worked on were to align perceptions with the reality of the scope of the donor agency’s contributions in order to exert more influence on the local government, and also to ensure that the donor’s Ambassador, visiting Ministers etc were aware of what the projects they were funding looked like on the ground – with the goal of increasing development assistance from the donor government.

    1. Josie Stewart

      Thanks for your comments Sally. I couldn’t agree more – keeping up with the Joneses really is a big driving force in this and I can see the argument for Ambassadors and visiting officials etc needing to be able to see what is being done with their money… but I just don’t buy the automatic connection from this to branding. In my experience host countries – governments and people – aren’t won over by branding, and visiting officials should have or be given a little more knowledge than just what they take from signboards and posters. I guess my view is that the rationale makes some sense, but in practice it just doesn’t hold true.

  16. AusAID’s new kangaroo logo is certainly popping up in more and more places too…

  17. I work for a USAID contractor so i’m not going to get into the meat of your post, but I can add one thing.The handshake logo is so old my dad remembered it fondly from his childhood in Karachi in the 50s. “From the American People,” though, was part of the USAID rebranding in 2005 or 2006.

    1. Josie Stewart

      That’s interesting. As far as I could say I ‘like’ any branding at all, I could say the handshake alone wouldn’t be too bad!

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