Advertising aid – the good, the bad and the ugly

I had intended to post about this a long time ago, but hey, it’s better late than never eh? You might remember back in November last year, I posted a parody video Who Wants to be a volunteer? by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund.

Back in December, they held their annual Rusty Radiator Award in Oslo for charities using damaging development stereotypes in their advertising campaign. You’ll know from reading my previous posts that I believe that these stereotypes are not only unfair on those people portrayed in the adverts, but also perpetuates disempowering misconceptions and hinders long-term, effective development.

The winner of the award, as decided by social media voters, was South African aid organisations Feed A Child advert, the MOST ridiculous and offensive portrayal of a white women feeding a black child like a dog.

Jury’s comments: Completely ‘White Saviour’. David had to turn it off after 10 seconds. Racism isn’t something of 200 years back, it’s something very present in South Africa today. It’s interesting how this was produced by one of the biggest advertising companies in the world, and how they got it so very wrong. The message doesn’t justify using the same stereotypes to both raise awareness and steal agency. The poor are already depicted as incapable of their own rescue, now they are being compared to dogs. What next? Is there a score worse than 0?

Others shortlisted, include:

Hunger Stops Here – Concern Worldwide

Jury’s comments: “What mother would put their suffering kid in the middle of the sun and just sit there? This is straight up staged, with shocking images of children in HD. You would never put an American kid in an ad like this, because there’s too much dignity given to the privacy of the children. It promotes every stereotype about malnutrition, and tries to encourage giving and donation out of guilt. It’s like they found them by the roadside just waiting to die.”

The Most Important “Sexy” Model Video Ever – Save The Children USA

Jury’s comments: Uhm, wow. We’re speechless. They just got it wrong. This is an attempt to get Facebook likes and clicks by putting sex and poverty together. By using celebrities in this fashion, the message becomes hollow and meaningless. The models are made to look stupid. “I detest this kind of bullying. This video made me cringe”, says David

What Does Poverty Look Like? – CCF Canada

Jury’s comments: The winner of the Rusty Radiator 2013 is back! We thought we were watching a parody of it. They are basically using the same scenes they always use, we’d like to know how old these shots are. “Do you know what poverty looks like” – does it look like a person? Who talks about a human being like that? Teddy describes it as “poverty porn, white saviour complex, over-simplification to the causes of poverty to the missing $1 silver bullet solution to poverty”, and Boima as “everything that’s wrong with fundraising”. “I am amazed that this would run at any TV-station in the world”, says Rosebell.

The winner of the Golden Radiator Award, goes to the fundraising videos using creativity and creating engagement. In 2014, it was Save The Children UK’s Most Shocking Second a Day video

Jury’s comments: Any advocacy ad that can put you in the middle of the situation instead of casting people and situations you’d never imagine is a good one. This video presents conflict porn without overwhelming you with it, because you are so invested in this girl’s tragic day. You feel for the little girl as if she was someone you knew next door or your children went to school with. It emphasises the universality of suffering and empathy, and breaks racial stereotypes about who suffers.
– Video produced by Don’t Panic London

Also in December, The Guardian published a list of what it deemed ‘11 of the best aid parodies‘, turning the tables on the newly released Band Aid single. Including videos from Saturday Night Live and Africa for Norway/Radi-Aid, you can find the full list here.

One of my favourites is this Radi-Aid classic; Let’s Save Africa:

What do you think about these adverts? How do they make you feel? Are they totally inappropriate and offensive, or realistic representations of those living in extreme poverty? Do you know of any others worthy of this award?


FRAMED: a documentary

VERY pleased to have stumbled across this documentary film being made:

“What’s behind the West’s fascination with “saving” Africa? FRAMED investigates the images and myths that cast a continent as a victim”

It’s about time that projects like these became mainstream!

In Good Magazine, an article by Dana Driskill says of the documentary:

An increasing number of Americans are volunteering abroad. The New York Timesreports that an estimated 1 million Americans go overseas to volunteer each year, and African countries are the most popular destinations for these trips. Boniface Mwangi, a Kenyan activist profiled in a New York Times Op-Doc video, wants to know: “why?”

The video documents a visit Mwangi made to Carrborro High School in North Carolina, posing this same question. One student tells Mwangi she wanted to volunteer abroad as an advocate for women’s rights in India, Africa, and the Middle East.

So as a woman of color, why would you travel all the way to India to talk about women when you have race issues in your country that affect your people, people who look like you, and young black men? If you speak about it here, they’ll hear you more, because you’re local,” Mwangi says bluntly, before apologizing for putting her on the spot.

She stares at him for a moment and blinks, obviously taken aback. “Um…I don’t know,” she says and shrugs. “I guess people in India, the Middle East, and Africa suffer more than women here do.” She then quickly reconsiders, acknowledging that it might be better to gain experience in women’s advocacy in the United States before taking her ambitions abroad. Their brief discussion brought to mind a great bit by The Daily Show’s new correspondent Trevor Noah on the inaccurate perceptions Americans have of African nations versus the reality.

There’s a clear sense of glorification and faux heroism. When I’m here locally in Durham doing very similar work, people aren’t as excited by it,” one Duke University student says, a participant of an international volunteer program that invited Mwangi to speak during his trip to the United States.

Among the uncomfortable revelations during Mwangi’s speech and roundtable discussion was that it’s likely foreign volunteers in African countries benefit more from the experience than the communities they are trying to help thanks to the resume- and university application-enhancing powers of such a unique, altruistic endevor.

Mwangi and his fellow activists stop short of asking Westerners to leave Africa and disengage from efforts to improve conditions. Instead, they want people to reassess why they want to volunteer specifically in Africa and how they want to make a difference. Mwangi believes that students should spend time volunteering and advocating for change in their own communities before going international.

There’s nothing wrong with service, and helping others by going abroad. I think it’s a very noble idea. The question is why are you doing it? Why go abroad when you can stop at the local homeless shelter?” Mwangi says, pointing especially to the experiences of black Americans in their own country. “My concern is that while you guys are out trying to save the word, you’re neglecting what’s going on at home. “

Read it here.

What do you think? Should the West start concentrating it’s saviour mentality on itself?

What a WONDERFUL way to see in 2015…

Happy New Year everyone.

I hope you had enjoyed wonderful celebrations to see in what is going to be a VERY exciting year. This year I’m hoping to really ramp up my posting, do more research for meatier pieces, get others to contribute and work on our very exciting Simua campaign to challenge African stereotypes. I’d also really love to hear a lot more from you, so please do comment and get in touch! And if you’d like to write something, I’d love to hear from you!

My year got off to a particularly brilliant start when someone sent me a link to an amazing video of Robtel Neajai Pailey.

Someone needs to give that girl a medal! She’s basically espousing everything I’ve been trying to convey in this blog. I thought I’d share it with you. Let 2015 be the year when the West stops pitying and patronising Africa (and other so called ‘developing’ continents and countries), stops treating it as one homogeneous group and stops pretending that aid is going to ‘save’ a continent that is not treated equally in the international political and economic systems. Enough is enough! Let’s raise our voices loud and clear and start building a world that works for all.

Lots of love, joy and goodwill to you all.


Why it’s time to BAN Band Aid…

Sigh. The air has turned colder in the UK, it’s almost acceptable to bring up Christmas and three African countries are suffering from an (admittedly devastating) outbreak of the Ebola virus. We know what this means… it’s also about time for Sir Bob to come to the rescue, saving the African continent yet again with another excruciating rehash of the paternalistic, patronising and painful festive Band Aid classic “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” thirty years after the original.

Initially, one might ask why Geldof think’s it’s necessary to release this song when there is already a (admittedly French-produced) version “Africa Stop Ebola” with West African artists Guinean Kandia Kora, Mory Kante, Marcus and Sia Tolno, Ivorian Tiken Jah Fakoly, Malian Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangaré, Mokobe and Salif Keita, Congolese Barbara Kanam and Senegalese Didier Awadi (what a line up!).

The intentions are good, but the song is damaging, patronising and perpetuates the difficult-to-shift impression across much of the mainstream media and public perception in the UK (and much of the ‘West’) that Africans are helpless and are waiting to be saved. This is despite the fact that Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans are helping themselves to combat Ebola, and Nigeria and Mali have successfully contained and eradicated cases of the disease.

According to research carried out by VSO in 2001:

80% of the British public strongly associate the developing world with doom-laden images of famine, disaster and Western aid. Sixteen years on from Live Aid, these images are still top of mind and maintain a powerful grip on the British psyche.

This false understanding of the African continent has a huge impact on all who live and work and were born there. It defines roles such as ‘powerful giver’ and ‘grateful receiver’ and leads people living in the West to assume that everyone must want and need to embrace our democracy, culture and political models; beliefs that are then reflected in the global political, economic and social system and in relationships between countries and between citizens.

Here’s my take on why it’s time for Geldof to hang up his sword and cape, climb down from his white horse and ‘hand Africa back’ to those who live there:

It’s Christmastime; there’s no need to be afraid
(Although it’s perfectly acceptable to stockpile Ebola Survival Kits, ban flights from the whole continent of Africa, and talk about Ebola as if the only reason we should be concerned is that it might actually leave the continent)
At Christmastime, we let in light and we banish shade
(Shade? Phew, that’s something they could do with in Africa surely? It’s SO HOT THERE ALL OF THE TIME)
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
(Or how about some good old fashioned equality in the distribution of wealth and resources?)

Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime
(But not too tightly, you might catch something)
But say a prayer to pray for the other ones
(Yes the OTHER ones)
At Christmastime
It’s hard, but when you’re having fun
There’s a world outside your window
And it’s a world of dread and fear
(Did you know: they don’t have fun in Africa; only dread and fear)

Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
(And tears are the source of the Niger, Nile, Congo, Zambezi, Orange…)
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
(If only they had festive music like this)
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmastime
(But there might… )

The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life
(And this is unique to Africa)
Oh, where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow
(The EU has been clearly lying to us about the fact that it imports 40 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports (but don’t get me started on ridiculous inequalities in the global economic/food system and the imbalance of African imports/exports)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all?
(Funnily enough, they do. Because one in four Christians live in Sub-Saharan Africa)

Here’s to you, raise a glass for ev’ryone
Here’s to them, underneath that burning sun
(And it’s only going to get worse thanks to Western-led climate change)
Do they know it’s Christmastime at all? 

Feed the world
Feed the world
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again
Feed the world
Let them know it’s Christmastime again

Even Geldof knows it’s crap. It’s time to disband.

“Development” – says who?

I’ve been meaning to write a post about the ‘language’ of development for some time now (you might remember I mentioned it in my last post), but this article on the Guardian Poverty Matters blog this week brought it to the forefront of my mind. 

“Development” is dead. There, I said it. And i’m not the first to either. Tonight will forever stick in my mind as the night that I truly discovered Post-development theory. I might be a bit late coming to the party, but boy am I sure glad that I’ve arrived.

A large part of me feels like squirrelling myself away for the next couple of months to digest and read as much about it as possible, and I will do. But another part of me is interested to see how my opinion evolves and changes as I learn about it, so I’ve decided to get down my own thoughts about the language of development here first so that I can revisit it in a few weeks/months time and see if there are any similarities/differences between the two.

I personally have a problem with the discourse of “development” for two main reasons. Firstly, because, in its current form, its a Western construction; a yardstick definition created for the rest of the world to measure up to, a measure that creates division and wrongly elevates the West as the hegemonic power. Secondly, the discourse that has commonly come to be associated with ‘development’, is, in my opinion, doing more harm than good.

Addressing this is important. Language constructs our reality and the specific way it does do has consequences for all of us.

So, what is ‘development’?

The World Bank states that a developing country:

is one in which the majority lives on far less money—with far fewer basic public services—than the population in highly industrialized countries. Five million of the world’s 6 billion people live in developing countries where incomes are usually under $2 per day and a significant portion of the population lives in extreme poverty (under $1.25 per day).

It’s probably worth noting here, for those who aren’t in the know, that the World Bank president has historically been a US citizen nominated by the United States (the largest shareholders in the bank)… and despite a revision to voting powers in 2010 intended to increase the voice of developing countries (notably China), the countries with the most voting power are now the US (15.85%), Japan (6.84%), China (4.42%), Germany (4.00%), the UK (3.75%), France (3.75%), India (2.91%), Russia (2.77%), Saudi Arabia (2.77%) and Italy (2.64%). Are you starting to see a pattern emerging? I am…

So the rules of “development” are set and refereed by the “developed”, and according to them, an overall progress in “development” can be associated with economic growth, a vibrant private sector, empowerment (people having the ability to invest in their health and education and to shape their own lives by being able to participate in the opportunities provided by economic growth and have their voices heard about decisions that affect their lives), good governance (where contracts are enforced and markets can operate efficiently) and ownership (countries owning their development agenda). I know you might not expect anything less from a bank, but it’s all about money, money, money. To this day, “development” is largely synonymous with economic growth.

First and foremost, how can a collection of countries that are beholden to big banks and business; that suffer from financial collapse and who are beholden to investor-state, be in a position to talk about development? However, my main problem with the economic focus is that IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT MONEY. I’m not going to pretend it’s not important in the current system, and that a lack of it doesn’t cause very real and life-threatening problems for millions of people, but the fact that what this system, imposed by the West, values economics and finance above all else, is a true symptom of what’s wrong with the world.

Valuing economics above everything else ignores the many other essential parts needed for a flourishing country. What happened to everything else that’s important in the world? Like society, and humanity, and caring for the environment? How is it possible that we live in a world where ‘developed’ countries spend more money on arms and war than their people; where consuming ‘stuff’ is more important than protecting and nurturing the environment; where we put up borders and boundaries to protect ourselves from each other; where women are still valued more for what they look like than for who they are; where giant corporations tell us what to do and think and how to live; where the elderly are tolerated and feared rather than respected and cherished? How can a system that values the pursuit of wealth and power be considered developed?

This system ignores the fact that there is so much to value in countries beyond their economic status. Many of the financially poorest countries have the richest societies and communities. The ‘developed’ could certainly learn a thing or two from the ‘developing’ in this respect.

Secondly, why is it apparently assumed that the whole world wants to emulate the West and that it can decide what is universally ‘good’? Rather than exporting our ideas, values and norms with the belief that people living in other countries must be dissatisfied with their country and culture in general, rather than the hugely unfair and Western-dominated system we live in, is misguided. I have no right to tell other countries not to follow the West’s example, but “[t]here are numerous ways of living a ‘good life’, and it is up to each society to invent its own.” (Rist 1997) Who put ‘us’ in charge?

Setting this Western standard elevates us to a position in the world that we do not deserve. It gives us power over the narrative and that we hold the cards and make the rules. It’s a powerful discourse that permeates all levels of politics, society and the development sector.

Harmful development

Moving on now to my second point, that even within the current context of “development”, the discourse used within the field causes more harm than good. A discourse that creates ‘poor’, ‘desperate’, ‘primitive’, ‘uncivilised’ nations has a huge and powerful affect on how the ‘rest of the world’ sees ‘developing’ countries. The language groups, homogenises and dehumanises and creates stereotypes that perpetuate a paradigm of dependency and inequality between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries.

Countries that have been linguistically described as lacking, backward and inferior are seen as ‘unacceptable’, lesser versions of one’s own society in a system where the standards of what makes a good society are assumed to be both universal and in line with Western standards. It is this type of thinking, where poorer societies are deemed as too traditional and require modernisation, that was used to justify colonial expansion.

The idea that non-Western societies are historically backward and can be compared to earlier periods of European history has been described as the “transformation of geo-cultural differences into historical stages” (Nandy 1992: 146), as the “chronification of spatial co-existence” (Melber 1992: 32) or simply as the “colonizer’s model of the world” (Blaut 1993) because it justified the colonial expansion of the most advanced states. (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

Apart from the fact that this is patriarchal and authoritarian, it also ignores the fact that historical processes cannot be reproduced in other countries that have completely different economic, political and social environments and histories. It also makes the normative assumption that these processes have led to better, ‘developed’ societies in the first place (as mentioned earlier in the post).

It’s now widely recognised that the traditional tools of development benchmarking: GDP and per capita income are ineffective measures of poverty reduction. They ignore factors like wealth distribution and provision of public services, and wrongly assume that boosting income is the only way to reduce poverty.

As Ziai notes in his essay, this general assumption that ‘development’ refers to the situation of a group of people living in one country and which improves the life of all members of this group, means that the

“classical paradigm of development constructs social problems (whose existence is not called into question) in peripheral countries as “development problems”, as problems liked to a lack of capital, knowledge, technology, productivity, institutions, etc. which can be solved by projects or programmes of development which deal with these shortcomings.” (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

This again, fails to recognise the difference between supposed beneficiaries and assumes that social problems can be solved with ‘rational’ and ‘unobjectionable’ technocratic solutions. In reality, the problems of social inequality can rarely be dealt with successfully in this manner. Zaia quotes James Ferguson, who writes:

“By uncompromisingly reducing poverty to a technical problem, and by promising technical solutions to the sufferings of powerless and oppressed people, the hegemonic problematic of “development” is the principal means through which the question of poverty is de-politicized in the world today”. (1994)

Ferguson goes on to say that this technocratic bias in development discourse is often reproduced by the institutional interest of development organisations.

It’s clear that the implementation of what is often defined as the ‘common good’, is a structural feature of development, despite attempts to introduce the principles of participation, ownership and empowerment into development policy since the 1980s. Case in point here.

Despite some improvements in the sector, the language and imagery used by charities to fundraise for international development is another primary example of how the language of ‘development’ can often do more harm than good. For me, a lot of the sentiment of Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay: “How to write about Africa” can be applied to the development sector and to society in general – a lot of the language used to describe developing countries and those living in them serves to conjure up images and assumptions of poverty stricken villages, violence, malaria and misery. This reinforces ideas that ‘they’ are inferior, uncivilised, victims to be saved. Aside from being completely unfair and disrespectful, it’s also wrong. I’d like to write (or invite someone else to write) a post about this in particular at some point.

Jina Moore, a journalist previously based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, describes the single-mindedness of these portrayals when applied to Africa (often seen as synonymous with ‘development’). In 2012 in the Boston Review she wrote:

“We [writers] blame our editors, who (we like to say) oversimplify our copy and cut out context. They also introduce clichéd shorthand, such as “Arab north versus Christian and animist south” (Sudan), or boilerplate background, such as “the 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed” (Rwanda). Virtually any story can be sold more easily if set in a “war-torn country.”

For these tendencies, our editors in turn often blame readers, whom they assume can’t or won’t follow us through villages with difficult-to-pronounce names or narratives with nuanced conclusions or moral ambiguities.

Ultimately, the problem with journalism from Africa isn’t about professional conventions. It’s about all of us—writers and readers, producers and viewers. We continue a storytelling tradition that hasn’t fundamentally changed since Joseph Conrad slapped Congo with “the heart of darkness” label.”

Rusty radiator does a great job at calling this out!

What’s the answer?

L. Frank remarks that development:

“…is an empty word which can be filled by any used to conceal any hidden intention, a Trojan horse of a word. It implies that what is done to people by those more powerful than themselves is their fate, their potential, their fault.” (1997)

So what can ‘development’ be replaced with? Academics aware of the criticisms of the term have made numerous attempts to redefine it and there is an increasing awareness of indigenous concepts which might replace the notion. But should it be replaced or simply cease to exist at all? Can and should we arrive at a unequivocal or progressive definition? Wouldn’t any replacement still reinforce the same classical paradigm that ‘we’ are developed and ‘they’ are the developing and there is some universal acceptance of one common good? Even if you disagree with these criticisms, it’s difficult to deny the fact that the term ‘development’ is often used ambiguously without a definitive understanding (i.e some see it as referring to higher income, others refer to better healthcare etc…). It means different things to different people.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I do like the way Zaia concludes his essay:

“In the words of Rahnema (1997: 391): “The end of development should not be seen as an end to the search for new possibilities of change”. It should be seen as the beginning of less Eurocentric and vague notions of change. (Of course, alternative concepts of social change and improvement also need to be questioned concerning their implications or their instrumentalisation)” (Development in Practice, Volume 23, Number 1, February 2013, Aram Zaia)

In my mind, it’s the system that needs to change, not the term. To give ‘development’ another name, without changing the global structure of inequality and interdependence that goes with it, you might just as well call it ‘maintenance’.

What do you think? Is ‘development’ dead? Should and could it be replaced? Is there a better term or should it cease to be used at all? Thoughts as usual gratefully received…

P.S Thanks for bearing with me in this post. I sometimes struggle to get my words in the same place as my brain and heart so I know I can ramble/waffle/make mistakes/miss things out/tie myself in knots. I’m working on it!

P.P.S I’d like to put together a glossary of words that have made it into the “development” discourse that are ridiculous, ambiguous, harmful or wrong, that perpetuate stereotypes or have questionable intentions. Heres a start from me, please send me your own suggestions.

Globalisation – the belief that the state must stay out of development other than to ensure contract law and accounting procedures etc and that the rest will be taken care of by the market on a so-called ‘level playing field’. In reality, this is a ideology forced upon poorer countries by wealthier ones and the taking down of trade barriers and the opening up of economies to foreign direct investment and outside enterprises has largely proven to serve multinationals and their home country governments. Hypocritically, wealthy countries are actually in effect selling our own manufactured goods while closing our markets to many of the products developing countries can sell.

Democracy – Something the West likes to export. However, although the terms democracy and human rights are often claimed to be European inventions, the underlying concepts of political self-determination and moral standards and individual rights are definitely not, as many tribal societies with consensual democratic decision-making procedures have proven (Sigrist, 2005).