What is framing? 01

1. What is framing?

‘Framing is the selection of topics, words, and images that evoke certain feelings, values, and ideas’ (Mirjam Vossen, Dutch journalist/ researcher).

It determines how we perceive the world around us and how we act. According to George Lakoff, professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Berkeley, framing is a mental structure that people use to organise the world. Framing can be consciously used to influence another person, but we mostly frame unconsciously. Lakoff thus compares it to breathing: we are usually unaware of our frame of reference and how it affects our perception of the world around us. This frame of reference is formed by all of the experiences that we acquire in our lives. Because everyone has their own frame of reference, everyone frames things differently.

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2. Which frames are used?

In development cooperation, a variety of frames are used. Here you can find a list of the most commonly used frames in development cooperation, as determined by Ms Mirjam Vossen in her forthcoming dissertation called ‘Framing Global Poverty’ (2014).

Victim frame


Human suffering is central to the framing of the victim. The poor suffer due to a lack of basic resources such as food, safety, shelter, water, and medical care. Read more

Social justice frame

sociale rechtvaardigheid

Injustice and inequality are at the heart of the social justice frame. Read more

Progress frame


The progress frame regards poverty as a question of development lagging behind. Read more

Our fault frame

Primark demonstration

We have either caused or perpetuate the problems in developing countries. Read more

Global Village frame


The central theme in global village is that we are all in the same boat and that we have a shared responsibility to address global problems. Read more

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3. Why are frames important?

What is it that make frames important? Frames address people’s values. Values are ideals, perceptions of desirable goals, that define the lives of individuals and groups. examples of values, for instance, are freedom, wisdom and self-discipline. Values are the basis of every behaviour, because they influence people’s goals; goals in turn influence attitudes; and attitudes influence behaviour.

Examples of framing are:
  • Tax relief (are taxes heavy?)
  • Third World (so not the first place?)
  • Development aid (not yet developed?)
  • Mother Earth (warm and safe?)

Which values are activated? What behaviour do they evoke?

Social psychologist S.H. Schwartz researched values in over 80 countries and discovered a large amount of values that were consistent throughout different countries. This way, he came to 57 universal values, divided into 10 basic value categories. An overview of these values you can find below:

Values Schwartz

Some values are quite compatible, others conflict with one another. Universal values such as caring for nature, justice and equality are interconnected, but they clash with self-centred values like accumulating wealth and acquiring status. Every person adheres to both self-transcending and self-centred values, but the priority that people give to the various values differs. This prioritisation can change for people and by applying the frames that we as development organisations use (re-framing), we can influence that process. People who give high priority to self-transcending, universal values behave in a more socially conscious manner and are often more involved in charities. If the development sector wants to increase public involvement, it will need to aim its framing at universal values. If on the other hand people are addressed by identifying their own interests in campaigns, i.e. “when we help to create stability over there, we will not have to take in as many refugees here,” they will also become more concerned with values that serve their own interests. Ironically, they are then less inclined to support social campaigns in the long run.

More information about frames, values and the relationship between these is contained in the report ‘Finding Frames’, which was commissioned by Oxfam UK. You can read a summary of the report here and the entire report here.

In the following presentation by researcher and journalist Mirjam Vossen, global frames are clearly laid out once again.

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4. Re-framing: which initiatives exist?

So, re-framing is the slogan. A variety of initiatives  are already ongoing:

World’s Best News “Good news is too often drowned out by bad news, so we put the good news forward.” This is the motto of World’s Best News. This enormously successful initiative by the United Nations, DANIDA (the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ development agency), businesses and NGOs carries the message that the Millennium Development Goals are working, that developing countries have recorded huge progress and that if everyone cooperates, eradicating poverty will be possible.

Stop the Pity “It’s time for us to start viewing people in the developing world for who they really are instead of the stereotypes we’ve been trained to accept. It is time to Stop the Pity and unlock the potential!” Stop the Pity is a movement organised by the American non-profit organisation Mama Hope.

Radi-Aid A few years ago, a YouTube video made by ‘Radi-Aid’ went viral across the globe. It turns the stereotypical fundraising video around by showing Africans collecting money to buy radiators for freezing Norwegian children. Recently, they had a new Facebook hit with ‘Who wants to be a volunteer?’

BrandOutLoud BrandOutLoud is a creative communications agency for non-profit organisations worldwide. They are dedicated to shaping a different perception of international cooperation. Photography and film play a major role in their work. Through ‘Empowering by Branding’, they are trying to fight the prevailing images on the spot together with local aid organisations. Working on branding and communication, the organization will be able to conveys its message even better.

The people concerned are put in a central position and powerful images show the aid organisation’s strong identity. BrandOutLoud also produced a video in which they ask people in the Netherlands what sort of image they have of aid in Africa. This revealed that a better perception is urgently needed:

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5. Communication checklist

  •  Dignity

Do not make it worse than it is: ‘Poor’ or ‘destitute’? ‘Poor’ is already bad enough, the tragic aspect does not need to be emphasised.

  • Equality

 Avoid contrasting ‘we’ and ‘they’: this creates distance, even for a donor. Display the abilities of the partner organisation: this creates trust in the sustainability of the project and shows that the money is being put to good use.

  • Voice from the developing countries

 Give voice to the target group/ initiators: direct communication makes the message livelier; for example, use a quote from a cooperating partner.

Focus on the people participating in the project: the project revolves around them in the end!

  • Active cooperation partners

Initiative in the hands of the (staff of) the partner organisation: they started the project and without them, there would be no project at all.

Ownership of the partner organisation: they are responsible for the project and will have to sustain and embed it.

  • Realistic and balanced

What is the problem, what are the solutions and most importantly, what are the results?

Tell the full story: then people will not incorrectly believe that you can save a child with just 1 euro.

  • Show impact

What are the wider results? How have the lives of people in the community changed for the better?

Focus on the changes: show step-by-step which positive changes have occurred.

  • The bigger picture

Link projects to the Millennium Development Goals/ post-2015 agenda: a broader context for fighting poverty and promoting justice.

Make a connection to the ‘here’: actions ‘here’ have an influence in other places, for instance the purchase of Fair Trade products or signing a petition at www.avaaz.org

  • Values

Preferably, communication should appeal to universal values such as social justice and equality, and not to self-centred values like social status, personal prestige, wealth and power.

  • Imagery is illustrative of the project

Active! Who does what, where, and why?

The whole story, before and after: especially the results, because that is what it is all about!

  • Final check: an experiment in thought

If it were your son or daughter, father or mother, partner, best friend or girlfriend or yourself, instead of the individuals in your appeal, would you appreciate the way in which you were being portrayed?

If the project partner from the project country was here and would hear and understand everything, would you still put it this way?

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