Last Friday I had the opportunity to share a panel discussion on “Designing New Narratives: from poverty porn to agency” with Leah Chung, Maharam Fellow and RISD student, and Victor Dzidzienyo, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering Architecture and Computer Sciences at Howard University. The panel was part of the “A Better World by Design” Conference planned and run by a committee of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, here in Providence.
I was responsible for setting the stage and moderating, wearing my Regarding Humanity hat. I showed a number of images and narratives that I find questionable – from aid agency fundraising campaigns to children receiving free shoes to famous musicians visiting Ethiopia to models posing in front of poor children to photos of them with imported technological “solutions”. The theme of the conference was “Pause and Effect.” My point was that we should pause and think about the long-term effects of these kinds of images and narratives on people we say we are helping, supporting or partnering with. Beyond fundraising, advocacy and branding for our organizations, what is the impact of these narratives? What long-term effects do they have when there is no strong competing narrative or variety of narratives that enable a more complex, nuanced and varied story?
Some of the ways that we can help change the narrative include:
- Let people tell their own stories (see Haiti through Teenagers Eyes)
- Stop parachuting in “innovation”
- Rethink international aid programming (Radi-Aid is one of my favorite spoofs)
- Tear down stereotypes (see Mama Hope’s Women of Nyamonge and African Man videos)
- Remember it’s not about what you think people should want or have or do (another great spoof is Tim’s revolutionary new one-to-one campaign to Blend out Poverty)
Leah followed, sharing highlights from research she conducted this summer in Uganda on what Ugandans think about how they and Africans in general are represented in the Western media. With support from Hive Co-Lab, Leah and her research partner, Joseph Wanda, researched how people working in local NGOs and living in rural communities and informal settlement areas view ads like these:
Perhaps not surprisingly, a large percentage of the adults interviewed said they preferred the sad photo, because it would be more effective at showing a story of need and raising funds. Interestingly, however, 66% of the children and adolescents interviewed preferred the happy one. Leah said that a good number of people used the opportunity of her presence to include a story of their own needs and a personal appeal for funding or help during the interview process.
Overall, 76% of people Leah and Joseph interviewed said that they were not happy with the way that Africa is represented in the Western world.
Leah noted that through her research, she grew to understand that images are only the symptom of deeper dysfunction within the aid industry and its colonial legacy. She also noted that people all over the world hold stereotypes about others. She was viewed as someone bringing in resources to help, and called “Chinese,” although she is actually Korean.
Victor continued the topic by sharing his own story of living in DC as a child, and being one of the people that others wanted to come in to help. “For you as the outsider who comes in to save me, I have some questions,” he said. “For the folks who want to go on a ‘free trip’ to help, my question is: you are going there for what? What are the skill sets that you have that can make a difference? If you don’t have a skill set to offer, you should just stay home.” He recommended hiring local people for the various jobs needed during reconstruction after a disaster rather than sending over students with limited understanding of the local context and limited skills to work in it.
Victor emphasized the similarities in architectural design and designing programs aimed at helping after a flood or an earthquake. For both, a good understanding of the environment, the cultural context, the complexity of social structures, and the local beliefs and norms is required. He questioned whether academic institutions are doing enough to prepare students for working in these environments.
The ensuing comments and discussions made their way across a variety of related topics, with active participation from the room:
- What can media and development professionals do to support agency? How can we move beyond satire and critique? The bullet points above are a start but what else can be done? We need to change our language, for one thing, and stop using phrases like “we are empowering people, giving them a voice, giving them agency.” We also need to remember that using poverty porn takes away agency from those who donate. The entire cycle is disempowering.
- Local people are not passive in this: Communities and individuals can be very adept at manipulating this system. Local NGOs also have their own agendas and the aid industry also ties them in knots and makes it difficult for them to function, to be effective and to have a real impact.
- How issues are framed and by whom matters. There is a great deal of exposure to the Western world and its viewpoints, and often the issues and narrative are framed by outsiders. Local work does not get the spotlight and credit, it’s normally sexy graphic design and social media campaigns like Kony 2012.
- Should we help locally or internationally? The issues and problems in the world are global problems and they are interlinked at the global level, so where a person helps is not the issue. Location matters less than the underlying motives and levels of respect for people’s own agency, and level of ownership that local people have in the process. Going in to help a community in your own neighborhood or country that you do not understand or that you view as ‘lesser’ is not much different than doing that in a community abroad.
- Poverty porn is a symptom of much larger issues in the international aid and development industry. The causes go much deeper and require a major shift in a number of areas.
- Is it possible to change things or do we need to start over? Do we need a new model? It’s likely that international aid and development organizations will be disrupted and disintermediated by a number of forces and changes happening right now, from social entrepreneurs to global economic and power changes to technology to changes in “developing” country economies and attitudes. The problems are not going to go away and the market is not working for everyone, but the nature of how we address these issues will most likely change.
- Poverty porn is profitable, how can we change this? How can we make the idea of agency and elevating other voices as profitable as poverty porn? How can we take a more comprehensive look at the system and where it’s not working? How can we change what the general public responds to and switch the general consciousness of people who care to a new way of looking at things? How can we re:see, re:listen and re:frame the narrative and get people excited about stories from people who know and live these issues? As intermediaries, our job is to provide platforms and to work to make these voices visible, not to tell other people’s stories. Can we engage people better by showing impact and change rather than miserable situations that victimize and provoke feelings of guilt?
- Sharing and dialogue is one way that people can learn from each other and build strength in numbers to change things. Supporting “south-south” discussion and learning is key, as is discussion and dialogue between policy makers and practitioners.
- People (we) need to be aware of their (our) own privilege. People give out of guilt. Until they (we) understand their (our) own power and privilege and step out of it, we will never move forward. Educational institutions confirm and allow people to benefit from their privilege. Going on a semester abroad to “help” people ends up looking good on a student’s resume and helping them, in the end, get a job, not really helping those they went to “help.” So the volunteer ends up getting wealthy from these situations, in a way.
- Empathy matters, but how do we take it a step further than sleeping outside for a night to understand homelessness? Do these small efforts towards empathy add up to a larger awareness and behavior change, or are they meager attempts to experience life as “the other” without a real examination of power and privilege? How do we take this conversation a step wider also and look at how the West perpetrates and causes poverty by our own policies and consumption patterns?