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Engaging high school students in humanitarian causes

1 May 2014

Engaging high school students in humanitarian causes

International humanitarian organisations should focus on raising awareness of international issues with high school students rather than always persuading them to fundraise for their cause, new research suggests.

Victoria University of Wellington graduand Rachel Tallon, who will graduate with a PhD in Development Studies in May, explored New Zealand young people’s thoughts and feelings about international aid campaigns that targeted them through school. She discovered a range of responses, including students feeling conflicted about wanting to help while also being overwhelmed by demands placed on them, and experiencing guilt if they were unable to contribute.

“There’s a fine line between inspiring young people and getting them to feel empathetic, and inadvertently causing them to develop apathy, scepticism or negative attitudes later in their adult life,” says Rachel.

The young people often reflected their parent’s attitudes, says Rachel, including cynicism about ‘where the money goes’. However, one of the big differences between the attitudes of the two groups is young people’s perception of non-government organisations (NGOs) as companies.

“They see NGOs as companies out to market their business, and view themselves as consumers. In the case of humanitarian organisations, the ‘product’ is the alleviation of poverty, so once a fundraising event or sponsorship is over it’s considered a done deal rather a life-changing experience.”

Rachel found that today’s generation is savvy about images and posters. She believes campaigns need to change their focus from the ‘crying baby with flies buzzing around its head’-type poster, which she saw evidence of in the classrooms she visited.

“The Photoshop generation doesn't take images at face value—also if they’re interested in a topic they’ll go to YouTube and get their own perspective. I found many students had travelled, so they would say ‘I’ve been there and it’s not like that all over’. I would like to see NGOs disrupting the stereotypes and perhaps finding ways for students to connect with young people in the countries they are focusing on to promote mutual understanding.”

Rachel draws on personal experience to illustrate the importance of awareness raising, telling of her daughter’s participation in Amnesty International’s Wacky Hair Day, held to raise awareness about women in North Korea who are only permitted to do their hair in certain ways.

“My daughter came back inspired and interested, rather than thinking ‘I have to get more money out of mum and dad’—and it made her think about how we live in a democratic society, unlike countries that don’t have as many freedoms.

“It can be quite draining for young people to be urged to participate in one fundraising event after the other. These students may be in a cycle of learning about a country one day and fundraising for them the next. What impression is that leaving in their minds?

“I want to challenge NGOs to think of young people not just as revenue possibilities, and to focus their fundraising efforts on big businesses.”

Rachel is currently teaching geography and education at Victoria University and delivers guest lectures for teacher trainees and NGO educators on her research findings. She has been running workshops with the Council for International Development in New Zealand, and some of her papers have become recommended reading in Master’s courses overseas where the way in which humanitarian organisations represent the poor and raise funds is an established field of study.

Rachel’s research was supervised by Dr Joanna Kidman, Dr Andrew McGregor and Professor John Overton.

ENDS

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