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Animation: Does aid work?

Published 19th May 2010 - 28 comments - 4619 views -

When you work for an international development agency you’re always looking for engaging ways to tell the development story.

In a bid to try something different - not just writing policy papers and thousands of words blog type features - we decided to try some animations. We wanted to give people who support Oxfam the tools to challenge aid sceptics. We also hope to reach new people who might not come across our policy positions any other way.

I wrote the script for the animation below and then worked with an animation team from State of Play Games. There was a lot of back and forth as we refined the messages, adapted the animations and then went through the rigours of getting it signed off. Colours have to be right, you have to say things like this or like that - it’s complicated working at a large NGO.


This animation outlines the case for where aid has made a difference to millions of lives and shows that the idea that aid simply doesn’t work, doesn’t fit the reality in many of the poorest parts of the world.

I’d be really interested to hear what people think.

Category: Aid | Tags: oxfam, animation, state of play games,


  • Bart Knols on 19th May 2010:

    Hi Ian. I like the animation, and it is always helpful to tell a message using a simplistic approach. So that’s the plus. Where I am less optimistic is the way in which this same simplicity blurs the complexity about the aid business. For instance:

    - It is fine to say that people should hold their governments accountable. However, we know that in many parts of the developing world this is not possible.

    - It is fine to mention the 40 m kids going to school because of aid. But how many would they have been if all aid money had been well spent? Moreover, education is only half the job of kick-starting economic development. Literacy rates in Africa are increasing but unemployment rates remain very high.

    -  If aid money has delivered antiretrovirals to HIV positives, why is this number still so low? In Europe/USA, there is not a single HIV-infected person going without the drugs, in Africa the % remains appallingly high. Is the small number that receive them a success of aid or a gross failure of aid? You can look at this in 2 different ways.

    Perhaps a longer animation would have provided more time to discuss some of the complexities in a simple way…

    One of my favourite animations is ‘The story of stuff’. It is 20 min long, but oh so powerful. Have a look:

  • Lara Smallman on 19th May 2010:

    The story of stuff is great, especially the water one!

  • Johan Knols on 20th May 2010:

    Hi Ian,

    In my opinion animations do work.
    Since the main commodity to reach the MDG’s 2015 is money, I looked up where money comes from and in the process I stumbled upon five nice animations on YouTube.
    Here is the link to part 1:

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    @johan -  you should work for an NGO - what you outline is the classic “let’s get everything in approach”.

    Firstly, I think you have to consider audience. How many people will really watch and engage with a 20 minute piece? Tons of research suggests that online, not many. Yes, it’s complex but not everything you produce has to try and talk about absolutely everything. Sometimes it’s better to try and convey one message and hammer it home.

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    Sorry - above should have been @bart - I had a look at the story you spoke about. It was alright but nothing amazing….

    @johan - They’re interesting. The company that made our animation also made these.

    I think they’re great as they tell something complicated and make it simple and engaging….

  • Johan Knols on 20th May 2010:

    Thanks for the HIV link Ian.
    And I know that having two Knolses can be confusing.

  • Andrea Arzaba on 20th May 2010:

    I like the video very much! Very simple and clear (esp. the end hehe)

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    @johan - I know.

    I guess th two key lines from the blog are these: “We wanted to give people who support Oxfam the tools to challenge aid sceptics. We also hope to reach new people who might not come across our policy positions any other way”.

    I really like Bart’s blogs (and the animations that yoyu all highlighted are interesting but I think in a world of 24 hour throw away news and peolpe with busty lives and short attention spans we just can’t keep churning out really “heavy”, complex and detailed material - we have to vary it to reach wider groups…

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    Shouldn’t write so quickly - apologies for all typos above.

    If you want more detailed breakdown of aid debate, my colleague Duncan Green has written a great blog:

  • Bart Knols on 20th May 2010:

    Thanks Ian. Your comment ref ‘24 hour throw away news…’ is spot on. But does this imply that we have to turn in-depth stories into ‘quick and dirty’ messages that may not provide the level of detail people ought to receive?

    Your colleague’s blog starts with: Aid is bad (Dambisa Moyo). That’s a good example of short-cutting the message of Moyo’s book without the necessary eye for detail. Maybe it is a good and drastic way to describe the opposing fields, but it is not the actual truth (and I may assume that your colleague has read Dead Aid).

    Maybe its because I am a scientist that I find it hard to see the value of quick stories. The Story of Stuff stories are highly gripping, brilliant animations, but factually correct as well, and real though-provokers.

    Our challenge therefore is not to comply with the ‘throw away news’ world but to be creative. So creative that the attention span of readers is long enough to provide convincing and compelling stories that stick. For the aid industry this is, in my view, the same as in any other field.

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    Might want to check out my colleague’s credentials and this review of Dead Aid: - I think he might of read one or two books about development.

    Considering Moyo’s book is called Dead Aid and her position is that all government aid should cease in 5 years, I don’t think his position is much of a simplification.

    I agree with ‘be creative’ but I think what you’re suggseting is not creative - it’s a creative way of delivering something to the audience that is already engaged to the level that you want to be engaged to. That’s fine and there are plenty of forums for that where people can strut their intellectual prowess but some people need to try and reach out beyond that niche…

  • Bart Knols on 20th May 2010:

    Thanks Ian. I don’t doubt the qualities of your colleague for one second (and sorry if my comment came across that way). In your comment above you said what he should have said ‘That all aid directly towards governments should cease in 5 years’, to which I would add that all NGO support, missionaries, etc. were explicitly not covered by Moyo’s argument. That’s the level of detail that gives another impression than ‘Aid is bad’.

    Your second point is very interesting and important indeed. Anyone with a grain of marketing experience will tell you that addressing a small specialist group can be done with detail and complexity and that the message should become simpler and easy to comprehend the broader and larger the audience gets. Its what politicians do every day.

    Question is if we should do the same thing when it gets to development and aid. In my view too many NGOs bombard the masses with over-simplistic views to generate support and cash. Not bad. But the downside of this is that the faltering progress in many parts of the world backfires, leading to public scepticism and reservedness in the general public with regards to future support. Leading to even more nifty campaigns by NGOs. Ending in a vicious circle.

    How to break through all this?

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    Take your point on Moyo - if you look at his full review he is nuanced…

    On your question - I think this is the nub of the problem and I would argue that you have to do both. You have to try and appeal to a broad church (no pun intended) and for that you need a range of products. We actually had two animations made (I’ll blog the other one later today) and they were done to support an aid paper that we’ve released today.

    So you have the aid paper for plicy/politico’s and then you need mechanisms to deliver that message more broadly - and with Oxfam we have a base of people that we can engage with ie. use animations.

    Now we can (and have debated the animations) but my point is that people online (and the media that you want to use is as key as the audience) aren’t listening to 20 minute lectures (I’d love to see the drop off trates for the anmiations you sent round).

    Tere’s loasds of evidence for this. Here’s one thing I just found (haven’t time to dig out presntations I’ve seen

    I think lots of people are doing what they’ve done in traditional media and just planting it online (how many blogs in this forum have you seen that are massive - how many have you really engaged with). So my point is that you have to have both - the indepth and the nifty.

    And Bart - wait till you see the campaign I’m currently launching - I fear you won’t like it but I’ll do my best to give you the logic it’s built on!

  • Johan Knols on 20th May 2010:

    @ Bart

    Isn’t the animation about the mosquito also not a ‘quick story’?
    I assume you had it made to raise awareness for malaria. Yet, the message is extremely short and not in-depth.

  • Bart Knols on 20th May 2010:

    @Johan. The one-line mosquito is much more of a logo, much more of a brand, rather than a story. Consider it like the peace sign. Most people these days know the peace sign and what it means if someone is wearing a button with the peace sign on it. So it goes with the wristlets of different colours that people wear to ‘say something’. That’s the difference between Ian’s animation and the one-line mosquito.

  • Bart Knols on 20th May 2010:

    @Ian. Lengthy discussions on TH!NK3 yield a lot: I am in full agreement with the statements in your last comment. And don’t worry about your latest campaign, I always try to keep an open mind for new ways to communicate. Good luck with it, and looking forward to seeing it.

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    I know we’re not that far away from each other. I think that we both deal with people like each other in our day jobs!! It’s always a battle between policy and comms. I imagine (from your bio and blogs) thast you’re well immersed in a very specilist world - which is imoprtant for loads of obvious reasons - but what I’m concerned with is breaking out of that world for our messaging - but there still has to be substance behind it.

    Who does that substance really matter to? I’d say policy types, decision makers and some others - but I think that we still need to open the door to people who won’t engage as much as we’d always like them to.

    With malaira - you mmight get cut through with the message “mosquito nets save lives’ now, there’s a lot of complexity behind that but if you get someone who doesn’t think about it much to tkae away that message isn’t there value in that?

  • Aija Vanaga on 20th May 2010:

    I want just to post my own opinion that there are discussions which are ongoing about aid is saver or evil. And I do not know, even can’t guess, there is just no experience or data. There is no practice of no aid or practice with much aid. There is just today and hope for tomorrow.

  • Ian Sullivan on 20th May 2010:

    @bart - you might prefer this animation. this is about ‘quality of aid’ -and there’s a plicy paper in there!

  • Sylwia Presley on 24th May 2010:

    I personally think the animation is great, and I would try to cut it even shorter. I understand it’s a complicated topic, but the point oyu are making here is simple - it works and its needed.
    I think it’s also worth looking at how this material is going to be used, what are the goals - I see it working well for initial pitch to the public, just like saying (in a nice, funny, simple way) ‘hey, this is our statement, stop, listen and think about it more’.
    With any on-line asset you still need to position it, and then might link to more comprehensive source, website for instance.
    I like it;)

    Which once again is something we are trying to achieve in this competition;)

  • Ian Sullivan on 24th May 2010:

    @Sylwia - thank you. I thought I was going a bit mad as in this comp it seems any point that you make that aid works is seen as irrelevant unless you to point to examples of it not working (which clearly there are)and if you don’t look at masses of detail and depth then people don’t like it - although mst of the public aren’t interested in that level - joys of pop mob!

    I also think we could have gotten it to be shorter - after all the platform for it almost demands it (as opposed to 20 minute lectures!).

    The audience for this (when we made it) were Oxfam supporters who broadly agree with the message but maybe need some suring up and some examples for debates with aid sceptics.

  • Radka Lankašová on 24th May 2010:

    Hi Ian, your animation meets demands for current “instant” way of life and explaining things - it is easy to understand and visualisation helps the message to be clear for everyone.

    Of, course the issue of development is lot more complex, but those who want to know more, will find the time to do so.

  • Ian Sullivan on 25th May 2010:

    @Radka - it’s important to give people easy to understand messages as a way into the debate. I think this animation gives information and facts that not everyone knows. That’s important. However, what is also important to acknowledge is that this animation-  and the other one we produced are not intended to be the whole story. that’s why we have policy papers and the like. But you have to find ways to engage new people and re-engage existing interested people if you’re going to reach the large audience that you need to apply pressure and bring about change….

  • Ian Sullivan on 26th May 2010:

    @bart - Just to say that hopefully this might get you thinking more about why developing different products for different audiences is important - the aid animation got on Channel 4 News - great exposure for Oxfam and keeping us in people’s minds when they think about aid and the debate. Maybe that means they’ll read one of our blogs that features our policy messages, or watch the animation that supports those same messages and maybe one or two might read the paper itself:

    Have a look:

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 30th June 2010:

    very nice, do you have any that you can click by yourself?

  • Ian Sullivan on 01st July 2010:

    Hi Iwona

    What do you mean by click by yourself? We’ve got two that are on Youtube and can therefore be embedded in blogs, web pages - but let me know what you mean exactly.

    PS - I referenced you in my latest blog about HIV….

  • Mark Grassi on 01st July 2010:

    Dear Ian, Thank you for your blogs and it was great to meet you.

    I think that something which may be missing in order to bring aid advocates and sceptics and indeed people and policies is its ‘democratisation’.

    People from the developed world might be shocked at seeing what we mean by spending aid. In line with the points raised in your videos, it has been seen that it can mean subsidising crops in the US which are then ‘dumped’ onto African markets. If hospitals or schools are going to be built, they must seek to train the local population at the same time in order to be sustainable for the long term. Otherwise aid and development policy seem to clash, such as ; only providing gains to some sections of both societies.
    Speaking with some aid officials leads me to feel this is common practice.

    What about organising campaigns for people to learn about quality aid and then be able to choose where the money they and their government spends goes? This could encourage people to donate more privately, by linking people and policies like you say. Personally I would love to be involved in it.

    The possibility to trade remains the most sustainable way of ‘helping’ a country however. Id be very interested to read blogs on how aid has defeated corruption in places but would have to agree with aid sceptics on the point that charity doesnt work in economics- we have to create the conditions for all trade to be fair, and that means directing efforts to reform WTO and IMF voting, bilateral agreements etc. Hardly as attractive as bread-and-butter aid, but better for long term and individual development.

  • Ian Sullivan on 03rd July 2010:

    @mark - I totally agree with your points about trade - and the other things that you say. I think that aid is essential to help the poorest people in the poorest communities to get things like access to medicines. However, long-term economic development and raising of general living standards has to come from trade (although economic growth doesn’t necessarily reduce living standards for the poorest people.

    I like the idea of involving people more in decisions about aid spending up to a point and I think the US example you give is exactly what the aid community should be highlighting as ‘how not to do it’. I think doing so is the most important way of countering the ‘it achieves nothing’ argument - although that seems paradoxical at first.

    What do you think?

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