Tsunami. Hurricane. Earthquake. War. If you’re a charitable aid organization, the past couple of years have been busy. But globalization has presented charitable groups with new opportunities, albeit with one or two challenging side effects.
The new developments start from square one: getting the message out. The advent of international 24-hour news channels and Internet sites for all kinds of media outlets has made it easier for aid groups to alert potential donors, said Jo Leadbeater, head of policy for Oxfam, the international aid and lobbying group based in Britain.
“Our work is much more in people’s living rooms,” she said, when a crisis happens. “You’ve got pictures and journalists who also are there within the first two hours. We get people ringing us to say, ‘We saw the media coverage you had around the Pakistan earthquake,’ or Lebanon, and they want to give money.”
The thirst for news has kept crises and emergencies in the spotlight. “From the tsunami on, we’ve had a pretty regular stream of international emergencies that have kept people pretty clued in,” said Jeremy Barnicle, communications director for Mercy Corps, the relief group based in Portland, Oregon. “People thought that there was going to be donor fatigue. On the contrary, our funding has gone through the roof since then. People have stayed with us and stayed engaged.”
Fund-raising has also changed. Where once aid groups used to raise money in wealthy countries and then use it to help people in poor countries, now the distinction is not as clear. “For a group like us,” Barnicle said, “that works globally, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t raise money globally.”
Many groups have aid projects in India, but now Mercy Corps is looking at the country, and at China, as places to raise money. And Leadbeater said Oxfam was “doing a lot of thinking about how do we fund-raise in new markets like India, where there’s a burgeoning middle class, or South Africa or Brazil.”
Global communications networks have made lobbying easier, too, Leadbeater said. Teleconferencing with teams in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America has helped Oxfam to target politicians and officials with barrages of information and appeals. On-the-ground operations are also benefiting from globalizing technologies such as voice-over-internet telephony. “To have a technology like that,” Barnicle said, “where people can talk to each other for free or really cheap, actually lets us be much more efficient with donor dollars.”
Being better connected, through information networks as well as transport links, has also helped to get aid where it is needed. “Largely, in emergencies, we can respond faster,” Leadbeater said. “We can basically start a humanitarian response on day one. That’s made so much easier by the fact that information flows that much faster, and that we’ve got regional teams that can respond that much quickly – and also that so many places are just more accessible.”
Globalization has also had a tremendous impact on Oxfam’s human resources, thanks to a much broader recruiting base. “Among our expat staff, it’s way more diverse than it would have been 20 years ago,” Barnicle said. In Darfur, Sudan, Barnicle said, he encountered a Mercy Corps team that included a Tajik, a Bulgarian, two Kenyans and an Iranian. “If you’d visited a program like that 10 or 15 years ago,” Barnicle said, “it would have been a Canadian, an American, an Australian.”
As for businesses, though, globalization can have a downside for charitable organizations. For instance, the attention offered by the global news media can sometimes be counterproductive. “If something’s a story,” Leadbeater said, “it’s very likely to run internationally now, so controlling that is a very serious matter for us when there are security risks that we need to control as well. Our name pops up unfortunately somewhere where actually we don’t want a public profile, where we’re delivering water to 400,000 refugees, and it’s very precarious, and it’s not helpful to be seen as a political organization.”
She added that in some cases, Oxfam has had to pass information to journalists without actually allowing its own name to enter the story. The security challenges can be enormous in places like Colombia, Darfur or Somalia, Leadbeater said, and the group has lost staff in some of its recent operations. “There are limitations to what we can say publicly, for obvious reasons,” she said.
Additional challenges can come from the success that globalization brings. One is the risk of swindlers’ trying to capitalize on an aid group’s name. Barnicle said a man had tried to use Mercy Corps’ name to collect money after the South Asian tsunami, but he was quickly shut down. Another challenge is to manage expectations. As “Oxfam becomes more global, there is more expectation that we will respond, whether it’s an emergency or a perceived injustice,” Leadbeater said. “That’s an amazing, empowering thing, but also no organization can do everything.”
She also said she worried that as Oxfam grew on the international stage, it might start crowding out local groups’ voices. For an organization that has campaigned to stop big businesses from wealthy economies from overwhelming smaller competitors in developing countries, that would be quite an irony indeed.