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The danger of a single story

As employees and volunteers in the international development sector, we have a responsibility to be transparent and honest when we talk about the people we work with and programme countries. But sometimes this isn’t as straight-forward as it should be…

Stereotypes in the media

In 2009, Nigerian novelist and poet Chimamandu Ngozi Adichie gave a fantastic TED talk, “The danger of a single story”, which addressed the misconceptions of African countries, so often portrayed as homogenous, helpless and poverty-stricken in history books and the media. Chimamanda said, “If I had not grown up in Nigeria and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”

Her speech is almost ten years old and yet more relevant than ever. All too often we are presented with a single story of other races and cultures in the media, such as the grouping together of all 54 African countries to just “Africa”. This seriously threatens our international development mission as it homogenises all people in the Global South as “other” and diminishes a sense of global solidarity. Irish people have also been subject to such stereotyping – back in the mid-1800s, for instance, we were often depicted as childlike or savage in British cartoons and literature. As recent as 2014, the Irish Ambassador to Australia had to criticise the use of “belittling national stereotypes” such as “Drunk Paddy” in Australian media.

So stereotypes are definitely rife, but how do we challenge these?

We update volunteers of the Dóchas Code of Conduct in our media support pack.

That’s where the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messaging comes in. This Code defines standards of best practice for NGOs involved in emergency relief, long-term development and development education. It is based on the following principles:

  • Respect for the dignity of all people concerned
  • Belief in the equality of all people
  • Acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice

At VSO Ireland, we have great responsibility to depict the complexity of the situations in which we work and showcase the diverse voices of volunteers and primary actors. Organisations that sign up to the Code are committed to avoiding stereotypical or sensational images and messages that feed into the “white saviour” mentality of development and create a binary between “us” and “them”. We also circulate the Code with volunteers before they go on placement to ensure they think carefully about how they talk about their placement on social media, in blog posts and informally with friends and family.

Radi-Aid Awards

Dóchas are not the only ones doing fantastic work to break down stereotypical depictions in charity campaigns. Since 2013, the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) have been celebrating the best and worst development charity fundraising videos. The goal of these Radi-Aid Awards is to the challenge normative fundraising images and language, and to engage more people in the issues of poverty and inequality. These Awards emerged from the satirical campaign and music video “Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway’, which demonstrates how ridiculous many fundraising campaigns are and is guaranteed to make you laugh.

The Rusty Radiator Award goes to fundraising videos with the worst use of stereotypes, simplistic messaging without any context, while the Golden Radiator Award celebrates those that portray local people as active and inspire action, rather than provoke guilt. Two of our favourite Golden Radiator Award winners are this one from War Child Holland and this one from Save the Children. SAIH have also produced a fantastic social media guide for volunteers and aid workers to ensure they avoid depicting local residents are passive, helpless and pitiful.

Still in need of a giggle?

The fact we still need Dóchas Code of Conduct and Radi-Aid Awards in place is depressing, no doubt about it. If you’re feeling a bit disheartened, cheer yourself up by following Barbie Saviour on Instagram. This account challenges the “white saviour complex” and voluntourism, and is pretty damn hilarious to boot. You should also check out the laugh-out-loud funny essay “How to write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina, which captures the many clichés used by journalists, novelists and historians when writing about Africa and turns these on their head. Giving pseudo-advice, Wainaina writes, “Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.”

Time and time again, we are presented with a single view of international development, based on stereotypes and preconceived ideas of race and culture. By spreading awareness of the Dóchas Code of Conduct and the hilarious satirical content mentioned above, we can challenge and change this. Please share with your networks today!

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