c/o The Rules
115 5th Avenue, 6th Floor
New York 10003
August 29, 2014
Re: The Narrative Project
We are writing to you and your counterparts in other organisations to draw attention to core features of The
Narrative Project that we believe are inauthentic and misleading. We would like to ask you to take a moment to
pause, and consult more widely before committing any more of [you organisation’s] time, resources or credibility
to the project, on the grounds that is based on inauthentic ‘science’, and is proposing an approach that will not
only waste your resources, but, more importantly, attempts to mislead the public. Essentially, The Narrative Project
is asking you to stay chained in the past; to keep doing the same thing, with a few minor cosmetic adjustments,
and expect different results. This would be important at any time, of course, but is especially so as we head into
2015 and the post-MDG conversation becomes more mainstream.
Four years ago, we worked with many of your staff and colleagues to bring authentic semantic frame analysis to
bear on the discourse around poverty alleviation, charitable giving and international development. This culminated
in a report that BOND published called Finding Frames: New Ways to Engage the UK Public on Global Poverty.
Since publication, we have seen waves of discussion and new initiatives around the frames within this discourse
roll out across Europe, Australia and North America. We have also seen the idea of frame analysis move into the
mainstream of professional development and activist circles, with many groups, from nef in the UK, to
CONCORD in Belgium, to Smart CSOs in Spain, to BMZ in Germany to Global Witness in the US and Action
Aid in Australia devoting considerable time and effort to trying to get to grips with what it exposes, and what it
means for their work.
Unfortunately, alongside genuine efforts, we have seen some less rigorous, more opportunistic attempts that
cherry-pick one or two points and bend them to fit pre-existing agendas and we’re sorry to say we believe The
Narrative Project falls into this category. To name just two of its essential shortcomings:
Despite its claims and liberal use of “framing” language, nothing in the literature suggests there has been any
actual frame analysis. The methodology is limited to capturing what people say in focus groups and to pollsters,
rounded off with assumptions and educated guesses. The essential difference between the two is that frame
analysis deconstructs the language to expose its building blocks of logic, and thereby understand “why” people
think what they do, at the level of both conscious expression and the more powerful subconscious logic, whereas
focus groups and polling stops at the shallow and conscious “what” and fill in the gaps with pure subjectivity.
The reason the former is so important is two fold: firstly, 98% of human cognition happens subconsciously. This is
where the building blocks of people’s attitudes and beliefs exist. What emerges in the conscious is the end
product of that logic; what, to the individual, feels like common sense. Trying to understand the causes and
features of this common sense without semantic frame analysis is guesswork at best and has no empirical
standing. Secondly, focus groups and polls are not natural exercises for the participants; responses are highly
conditioned by the environment. What you say to a pollster or in a group of strangers and what you say in the
comfort of your own home can be very different. Relying solely on the former is a recipe for misunderstanding.
Secondly, the misrepresentation of the science then leaves ample room for confusing the purported objective –
re-engaging the public in the fight against global poverty by “creating a climate that helps us all be more effective”,
presumably at you mission, which is clearly stated as overcoming poverty - with the clearly stated actual
objective –increasing donations to charities. The KPI against which success is measured is, essentially, increased
charitable fundraising and support for aid, which we know very well is commonly understood as national charity.
But these are not inherently compatible. In fact, all the evidence from psychology and the cognitive sciences
suggests that, in terms of the frames they rely on and their component values, they stand in active opposition to
One thing we learnt very early on in our work was that cognitive linguistics is a highly specialised area of
expertise. It is emphatically not something anyone with a communications or campaigning job description
automatically understands or can apply, at least not without training and expert guidance. It is, however, easy to
drape the language of frame analysis over almost anything related to communications and claim its virtue.
When we found people with real and relevant expertise in 2010, our first step was to conduct and peer-review a
study to characterise the dominant frames in the conversation about global poverty. After that, we commissioned
different analysts to deconstruct a full year’s worth of Oxfam GB’s communications materials, and, among other
things, they validated the original findings of the poverty discourse. Then, in 2012 we undertook a third project
with IPPR and linguists from the University of Lancaster that found, yet again, the same basic features in the
discourse. Finally, we spent considerable time cross-referencing with colleagues in the environmental movement
who were doing similar analysis, with similar rigour and that delivered similar results1. The key findings were as
• An emphasis on charity and aid plays to and perpetuates paternalistic notions of Western dominance
that are vestiges of post-colonialism and empire from a past era. That these attitudes linger at all explains, in
part, why old-fashioned charity messages have any remaining traction, especially the sort of “flies in their eyes”
pity-based imagery so despised in the developing world. The truth is, with charity come moral hierarchies,
with poor people at the bottom. The concept is fully encased in the idea of powerful givers and grateful
receivers. This is why it is practically impossible to talk about it without evoking in the mind of the audience
passive (usually black or brown) victims and active (usually rich and white) saviours; why no amount of good
news stories will change the basic reaction people have; why trying to tell this story in the same breath as
talking about genuine equality and shared values is fruitless – you are asking thin, conscious messages to
contradict thick, subconscious logic because they are profoundly outgunned, cognitively speaking.
• The belief that poverty is “natural” conceals the real causes of poverty and therefore excludes any
approach capable of actually bringing it to an end.
• Massive loss of faith in NGOs that have over-promised and under-delivered (a la Make Poverty History),
undermining public confidence in these institutions and further diminishing the prospects for success in the
• Absence of focus on deep moral foundations and structural causes, revealing a “depoliticised”
approach that fails to address (1) how ideology and belief shape development agendas or (2) the legal and
economic structures that have been put in place by elites as “wealth extraction mechanisms” that create
inequality and poverty.
• A paternalistic treatment of “the poor” as passive, voiceless victims who cannot play any active role
in shaping their destinies.
All of these findings point toward the need for deep re-orientations of how the development project—as
opposed to the ODA project—is discussed with the public at large.
There is a clear alternative open to you; one that resonates with [your organisaiton’s] values and promises far
greater long-term results.
1 See Common Cause, the Case for Working with Cultural Values and a range of other resources at www.valuesandframes.org
1. Ask you staff to start from the assumption that there are valuable lessons in the opinions that you hear, and
work with those opinions to establish an accurate creation story for poverty and inequality. This
will activate powerful neural circuitry by providing a complete and therefore “sticky” logic. For facts and
ideas to become stories that come alive in people’s minds, with actors and images and movement, they need,
at the very least, a beginning, middle and end. As Aristotle said, “the soul never thinks without a picture” and
poverty and inequality are no different. Right now, the beginning is missing in the way NGOs talk about the
problem (poverty just is; almost as though it were a natural occurrence), the middle is reductive and, as you
are finding, increasingly disbelieved as people detach from old-fashioned moralistic beliefs about poverty (i.e.
the answer is to give more charity and aid) and so - and this is particularly important when looking forward
to 2015 - any talk of an ending is hollow and meaningless; it will feel, instinctively, like spin.
2. Building on this, start telling stories of the system with [your organisation’s] full voice. By which we mean,
fundraising, trading and campaigns. Help people make connections, and be a channel through which they can
make fulfill their clear and building desire to move away from old-fashioned moralising. ODA is the polar
opposite of this because it represents, very deeply, the contained and restrictive logic of charity. It’s rich
people giving, out of the goodness of their hearts, little bits of money to those poor people. I’m sure you
don’t see it that way, but all the evidence shows that this is the dominant public understanding, and has been
for generations. That’s why the charity and aid story is being increasingly rejected, especially by millennials,
and why it has all the negative associations The Narrative Project mapped, in the way many studies had done
before. This should be fantastic news and a huge opportunity for anyone interested in social justice. It is an
opportunity for NGOs to align with progressive social movements around the world who are surging
forward in this space. They will do so with or without the NGOs; the question is for you, whether you want
to be an anchor holding us to the past, or a force helping push the boundaries of social justice into the future.
3. Start hiring relevant experts; social psychologists, cognitive linguists, systems theorists, evolutionary
anthropologists, to name just a few. We’d suggest if you want to start small, start with authentic cognitive
linguists. Mainstream their insights in your strategising for how [your organisation’s] one voice speaks.
4. Set an intention and make a plan to evolve. We’re not suggesting that any of this is without challenges
for you or can be done overnight. Many of the partners in this project are synonymous with charity; they
grew incredibly successfully in the 20th Century using a charity business model and fully embracing its charity
identity. That made perfect sense then, but the world has moved on. We now have powerful concepts like
crowdfunding (Avaaz, for example, brings in over $30 million annually in crowdfunding, and no one calls
them a charity), hugely successful tools like Kickstarter putting practical flesh on the conceptual bones, vast
horizontal and dispersed organising inspiring new generations of activists, not to mention the new paradigms
for social justice, like those articulated by the likes of Occupy.
5. Make your messages consistent with your practices. When Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “your actions
speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying” he was making an insightful comment about how the
brain works. Framing is not a way of making messages more persuasive: messages are merely surface level -
the small 1/10 shard of the iceberg above the water. If the subconscious logic – the 9/10 of the iceberg –
represent one worldview, and messages another, the logic will always win. That is why the confused way
“frames and messages” are talked about in The Narrative Project is a recipe for extremely wasteful
communications, at best.
We will not speculate on the motivations of the Gates Foundation or the NGO leaders involved in steering this
project, other than to point to the fact that by focusing the conversation on ODA and prioritising fundraising
objectives, they are—knowingly or otherwise—actively diverting attention from the structural causes of poverty
and inequality, including:
• Cultural Feedbacks in the hegemony of discourse where empirically discredited stories (like “trickle down
economics” or the theory of rational action) are spread through the consolidation of media ownership and
covert public relations efforts that reinforce the status quo.
• The Tax Haven System that, according to the Tax Justice Network, is shielding at least $26 Trillion dollars
from the public purse, and is the channel for the extraction of at least $1 Trillion a year from developing
• Anonymous Ownership and the use of shell companies to shroud transnational business dealings in
secrecy—enabling gun running, drug and sex trafficking, and all manner of corporate/governmental corruption
to continue abetting this global system of wealth extraction.
• The Extraction of Perpetual Debt that results in wealth transfers to Western governments, corporations
and financial institutions that are many times greater than the value of the original loan. We are seeing a large
amount of activity that falls into this category in the agriculture and farming space right now, with a so-called
“Green Revolution” being rolled out across Africa that diverts huge amounts of money to support industrial
agriculture. The best evidence suggests this sort of activity is already costing developing countries around
$600 billion a year, and with agricultural reforms is likely to cost a considerable amount more in future.
• Resource Extraction through so-called “free trade” agreements that enable multinational corporations to
impose and exploit licensing arrangements heavily rigged in their favour. The new patent licensing fees alone
are estimated to cost developing countries around $60 billion a year
These structural factors dwarf ODA many times over, and there is far more that could be included. We know
that you and your organisation—certainly many of your staff, especially in policy and campaigns departments —
recognise and care deeply about such things. And yet The Narrative Project is attempting to herd you, with the
stick of inauthentic science and the carrot of research and perhaps other funding, towards being more of an
agent of denial of these structural issues.
The frames that aid and charity promote are in direct psychological opposition to the frames—particularly the
essential moral dimensions —found in the more structural story. It is simply not the case that you can promote
aid and charity in one breath, and the structural story in another and expect them both to be heard because
each activates very different logical and emotional mental processes. They are deeply incompatible with each
other and compete for resources in the “mind space” of perception and awareness. So there is, to a degree, a
binary choice to be made at the highest strategic level. And it is abundantly clear which choice the Gates
Foundation favours. Given Save the Children’s size and importance as a leader in the field, this has far reaching
implications for public understanding, if only in the sense of progress denied.
Finally, we want to let you know that we are about to publish an opinion piece that is critical of this project. We
are also undertaking some social media work highlighting our concerns to NGO staff in the UK, US, Europe and
Australia, and will make this letter available to them in an effort to encourage open questioning of the evidence
and logic of The Narrative Project. We do all this somewhat reluctantly, and only after all the aforementioned
work behind the scenes over many years. But, given the systematic way that evidence has been denied or
sidelined over a protracted period by some leaders in the Gates Foundation and elsewhere, it is our firm belief
that unless there is wider discussion of these issues, including amongst your staff and the world-aware public, it is
unlikely that we will see any serious critical appraisal of this approach, or examination of the ideological agenda
that sits behind it, and hence far less progress in engaging an empathetic and intelligent public in this vital work.
We hope you will read it as testament to our commitment to doing what we believe will best help the struggle
against poverty and inequality, and not as an attack against [your organisation].
That said, we recognise that you may find this a somewhat forceful intervention. We would assure you that if
there is any way we can be of help we would be more than happy to engage, again, in a more private way. In the
first instance, we would love to provide you with any of the research you may not have already seen, and put
you in touch with some of the researchers, cognitive linguists, behavioural scientists, anthropologists, evolutionary
psychologists, moral philosophers, complex systems researchers and many other experts we have had the good
fortune to be able to learn from over the years.
Yours sincerely, and with warm wishes
Martin Kirk Joe Brewer
Head of Strategy Research Director
/The Rules /The Rules
Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International Hugh Evans, Global Poverty Project
Celine Cheveriat, Oxfam International Simon Moss, Global Poverty Project
Brigid Jansen, Oxfam International Jane Atkinson, Global Poverty Project
Stephen Hale, Oxfam International Joanne Carter, Results
Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB Colin Smith, Results
Patrick Watt, Save the Children Victoria Treland, Results
Juliette Perrard, Save the Children Sam Worthington, Interaction
Jamie Drummon, ONE Campaign Deborah Willig, Interaction
Adrian Lovett, ONE Campaign Liz Schrayer, US Global Leadership Coalition
Andrew Axlerod, The UN Foundation John K. Glenn, US Global Leadership Coalition
Caleb Tiller, The UN Foundation Dr. Wolfgang Jamann Welt Hunger Hilfe
Aaron Sherinian, The UN Foundation Barbel Diekmann, Welt Hunger Hilfe
Ben Jackson, BOND Mathias Mogge, Welt Hunger Hilfe
Farah Nazeer, BOND Kevin Cahill, Comic Relief
Helen D. Gayle, CARE Amanda Horton-Mastin, Comic Relief
Nick Osborne, CARE Michele Settle, Comic Relief
Steve Davis, PATH Caroline Kent, DSW
Arnie Batson, PATH Renate Bahr, DSW