Giving Compass' Take:

• Transparency is important in international development, but sensationalist media can distort the truth and undermine good work. 

• What can organizations do to foster public trust? How can donors retain trust and healthy skepticism?

• This is the second of Devex’s three-part series on the relationship between the British media and aid. Read the first part on how media coverage affects public attitudes toward aid.

When Adam Smith International, a British for-profit development firm, stepped away from DFID funding in early 2017 in the wake of allegations that its employees “acted improperly” to get an unfair advantage in bidding, its new communications lead Brigid Janssen knew it would be an uphill battle to regain public trust.

The for-profit development model at large had already come under fire from the conservative media, which described such companies as “poverty barons” and “fat cats.” What she hadn’t expected, Janssen told Devex, was a letter from the BBC about the “Access to Justice and Community Security” program in Syria.

Janssen believes that the letter — which detailed 96 claims of corruption, the diversion of aid funds, and other problems in the program, which supports an unarmed civilian police force in Syria — was “influenced” by critical tabloid reporting of the company.

The company began a huge internal inquiry into the claims. By the third week of the investigations, donors suspended funding to the elements of the program within Syria. But by the fourth week, five donor-led investigations, plus an inquiry by a third-party monitor, concluded that the allegations were either “false, distorted or misleading.”

“There’s a growing body of concern in academia about how the idea of looking good shapes the kind of doing good that you do,” Martin Scott, senior lecturer in media and development at the University of East Anglia, told Devex. “In the end that means looking good can end up taking priority over doing good,” he said.

As Janssen pointed out, this may manifest as an aversion to certain types of programs — easily spun investments in shopping malls or tourist development, for example — but others pointed out that perhaps the greater threat to transparency and aid effectiveness is how donors and aid organizations engage — or refuse to engage meaningfully — with the media.

Read the full article on media impact on aid sector work by Molly Anders at Devex International Development