What do young people think of development?: An exploration into the meanings young people make from NGO media
Young people are not passive, homogenous audiences of media that is produced by international humanitarian and development organisations (NGOs). They actively read and engage with the messages cognitively and emotionally and in the process create new meanings. This thesis is an investigation into what interpretations young people make from NGO media. The twin goals of education and fundraising present certain difficulties for NGOs who view developed world schools as a key site for awareness-raising for both their brand and global issues of injustice. Critics are concerned that when representation is aligned directly and simplistically with charity, powerful messages are signalled to the viewers. The nature and impact of these messages are yet to be fully understood as there is little empirical evidence of how young people receive and interpret NGO media. This research directly addresses this gap. The research identifies and maps various interpretations that young people have on encountering images and messages produced by NGOs. Year 10 social studies classrooms were chosen as the context for data collection and 118 young people and seven teachers from five diverse secondary schools in New Zealand participated. They were canvassed using qualitative methods that included focus groups. The approach for this research was informed by postdevelopment critique which examines the power of the discourse of development in constructing ideas about people and development. The findings show young people to be astute and critical interpreters of NGO media. Teachers reported that NGO media is very influential and could be problematic in forming a solely negative view of the global South. Most of the young people approved of the sector’s charitable work but many expressed doubts about NGO expenditure and the accuracy of the imagery. A key finding is that many said they knew the images were designed to make them feel guilty in order to elicit action which was usually a donation. The findings support other research among adults and show the early development of attitudes towards NGOs and ideas about the developing world. The significance of a conflicting emotional response towards NGO marketing is a central finding for this thesis. This conflict of wanting to help and yet not being able to do so created a tangible tension within the young people and affected how they viewed people in the global South. Young people in New Zealand are emerging actors in the global development industry and their ideas will shape North-South interactions in the future. This research directly contributes to understanding the power of the NGO sector to mediate global relations across difference, a process of which there are moral and political implications.