The “arms race” to slap donor and aid agency logos on everything from tents to toilets is getting out of hand, says the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Fed up with what he describes as “a carnival of names and flags and logos” on aid supplies, Jan Egeland says NRC will conduct a review, starting later this year, aimed at rethinking where the agency will and won’t put its logo.
People who use aid “should have the basic human rights of being themselves and not the poster-children of far-away organisations”, Egeland told The New Humanitarian in an interview.
Limitless displays of branding are common sights in refugee camps and other humanitarian settings where international aid has swooped in.
UN agencies and international NGOs feel the need to brand their supplies – especially in a highly competitive environment where donor funding is stretched and getting tighter.
Donor governments are eager to show where the aid comes from, and to show their own citizens how their tax money is spent. Branding and logos are often written into project contracts as part of minimum requirements on “visibility”.
“Britain deserves credit for the results that UK aid delivers,” the UK’s former Department for International Development said in 2012, in announcing that the Union Jack would be “badged” on British aid supplies.
The practice of excessive branding has long been criticised. Critics say it’s demeaning to people who use aid, that it reinforces the colonial nature of international aid, or that it undermines host countries, governments, and local humanitarian groups.
Egeland spoke to The New Humanitarian about what sparked his public “outburst” on the issue, why he thinks the problem is getting worse, and how many logos can be crammed onto a single latrine.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: You tweeted, “It is increasingly distasteful, the excessive branding by donors, UN agencies and us in INGOs of everything from school bags to tents, shelter, latrines, and health posts. Children in need should not have to advertise their donors.” What made you tweet this?
Jan Egeland: I’ve been uncomfortable with this. Every time I go to a field location and I see all of these posters, and all of these agency and donor names on the lives of very poor and vulnerable people. I’ve never liked it and often brought it up. At large international conferences, I’ve also said, “Shouldn’t we all tone it down?”
Because I think there is also a dynamic here: When a donor comes to a place to be shown what they have funded, they find the names of organisations and agencies – UN, Red Cross, Red Crescent, INGO names all over – and then they say, “But we funded it. They should know who funded it. We have to tell our taxpayers.”
So who owns the visibility becomes a little bit of an arms race. I think we need to tone it down, all of us.
The New Humanitarian: Give us a sense of what this looks like in practice. For example, people who go to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh often talk about how branded the camps are.
Egeland: There is hardly a tent or a building or a structure that doesn't have the name of often both the organisation that erected the structure, and the donor that funded the structure. In a way, it’s flagging: “It's not the refugees’ home. We own it.” We project “us" in it. And in such places, it’s like a carnival of names and flags and logos…
I remember one case, back in time, where there was a desperate need for tents. We offered tents, and the agency that was running that specific operation said – “Oh, is it branded with NRC, the tents? Then we cannot have it. We need our logo on the tents” – which delayed the tents arriving to the people. I found that incredible.
The New Humanitarian: As you say, NRC is part of the problem as well. What will you do?
Egeland: We in NRC will initiate a review now so that we have much more guidance on where we should not brand ourselves, and where we must and will put on our logo. So I hope that review will help, and then I hope we can go and dialogue with donors and ask, “Can we mutually tone it down?”
The New Humanitarian: What spurred this review?
Egeland: It was initiated when I had this outburst on Twitter that you referred to, and several – internationally, but also in the organisation – said “[I] couldn't agree more. Would you agree that we do a review to see whether we can tone down?” and I said, “Yes, absolutely.”
I've seen organisation names on the smallest toilet, you know, with the organisation and the donor. Let them go to the toilet in peace, really, I would say. And then let's have a real offer to donors that we can help them give feedback to taxpayers. Because I do see that one: I was the deputy foreign minister in Norway for a long time. [There is] this sense that countries were sinking money – billions – into these places, year on and year off, and it doesn't help and it doesn't lead to anything, and so on. There is a real need to explain to donor countries, individual donors, members, volunteers, that we're making progress, we're helping, we're saving lives, we are providing durable solutions, we're giving people dignity, and we're giving people work, and we're giving people a way out.
But let's do that more with telling stories, and give them the voice to tell what happened and have perhaps [donor] visits and so on. The visitor doesn't need to see logos plastered all over. There are other ways of telling donors and volunteers that it is a worthwhile investment.
The New Humanitarian: In an ideal world, what do you want to see?
Egeland: In the ideal world, I would see us branding our own structures – I mean a warehouse, the office, our vehicles – so that you know who we are and where where we go, and also know when we move that we move responsibly and and that when we come with stuff, who brought it. And then I would say, as little as possible on the tents, the school bags. I cannot see why the tents of people [who] lost everything, that they should advertise any organisation or agency, including NRC.
The best thing would be to have very little from the actual donor or from the actual agency, and say it belongs to the people now. We gave it to them; it's theirs.
The New Humanitarian: What are the chances of this happening?
Egeland: I'm not naive. I think we're very far away from that. What I predict is rather, in a more competitive climate for funding – funding is going down; 2024 will be a very tough year; 2023 is a very tough year for very good and very large agencies – there will be more pressure to really showcase to the world that we're doing well and that we need more money: “Look at what we're doing; send more money.” So I see more drivers for more branding. I would like to suggest that it will be in the interest of the people we help that we have less.
The New Humanitarian: You’re one of the more public aid leaders out there. You mention funding: I think part of the reason why people like you get out there is to be seen doing your work, and to get funding for the work you do. Do you also have to tone down your own branding – your own public appearances?
Egeland: In my humble opinion, this has zero to do with the branding discussion. This is advocacy. I go as often as I can into the fight for the protection of civilians, for more aid to people that are suffering, for more attention to atrocities, for more attention to violations and so on, and then I am very public.
I try to avoid personal or profile interviews, [which] I have said no to for many years. So I won't answer questions on if I have a dog, or what I feel about this or that, and what is my family life. But I'm willing to give any interview on Afghanistan or Sudan or Niger. That's an obligation. I would like to see more leaders being more public on more issues, where we fight.
I would say let's tone down: “Look at how wonderful my organisation is”. I mean, maybe I'm too much [but] I think I try to avoid speaking too much about what NRC is doing in a place.
Like in Afghanistan, I try as part of advocacy to say: We now have local agreements on female work. Eighty percent of our colleagues are back to work. We’re providing relief. So are many others. It is a myth that we cannot work in Afghanistan: We can work, but it's very true that there is still a ban on female work, and it's an outrage, and we need to push and pull and have maximum pressure on the Taliban authorities and the leadership so that it changes. That's the message.
The New Humanitarian: I recall your trips to Afghanistan earlier this year. It seemed to me that you didn’t have to be there, giving that message in such a public way. There were negotiations ongoing, your NRC colleagues and other INGO colleagues already had local agreements at the district level to continue work as they always have. You didn't necessarily need to be there. What purpose did that serve?
Egeland: My local colleagues… I wish they could go see any minister and to see the governor of Kandahar and so on – they couldn't. So I came, representing the highest levels of my organisation and thereby met the highest levels on that side, and could to their faces say that we were not going to work without female colleagues…
I’m sure that that was effective advocacy. And little by little, they understood that if they are to see us helping their people, we're not going to do male-only work – never have; never will.
It's always healthy [to have] a discussion on what's effective advocacy. In my view, to call a spade a spade and to be consistent and outspoken and really tell it as it is, is nearly always the best thing, and has nothing to do with branding.
Watch an edited video version of the Q&A here: