The one million shirts guy is why development communications is central to development. As @saundra_s tweeted: “oversimplified and emotional appeals make these guys think they’re doing the right thing.” If the links supplied by Blood and Milk, explaining the impact of second hand clothes and the list of alternative means of helping supplied by Texas in Africa, were as common in Western culture as images of the lone child in the torn vest or the parents dressed in rags in a refugee camp, it wouldn’t occur to people that sending shirts would help.
Disclosure: I went to my first animal rights meeting swigging from a bottle of milk. I was a student, it’d been a couple of days since I’d had a beverage that couldn’t also be used to flambé a crepe or disinfect a wound, so my late-afternoon decision to clean up my act and do something useful for a change seemed like a good one. The other members of the group glared at me, some turned away in disgust, the lights went down, a film began and I found that the topic was the evils of the dairy industry. Everyone has to start somewhere.
I had a quick look round the major NGO websites to see if there were any photos of kids in rags and after the seventh or eighth it was clear that the image in my head is no longer so much in circulation. That’s good. But when I wandered along to the animal rights meeting, it wasn’t after researching the latest thinking in animal rights, it was the result of absorbing, over many years, bits of argument from friends, books, newspapers, guys who used to stand in the street every weekend with a petition and gruesome posters, tv and radio shows. If someone, somewhere had pressed a flyer into my hand about dairy, it was nothing to the impression made on my mind, age eight, of seeing Watership Down then discovering people ate rabbit. That was just a couple of genes short of cannibalism.
This is where I think we go wrong. The most shocking images of people suffering that we see on Western tv, the ones that stay with us for years, invariably have a Western guy who looks well educated and not exactly poor, standing in front of them and explaining them to us. He looks like us and he is presented as the authority. Newspeople do it, celebrities working for charities do it and the NGO fundraising material that presents the NGO as the all-powerful, benevolent force, is doing the same thing. If instead we saw the people affected by the suffering, explaining what they were doing to tackle the situation, we wouldn’t think that to be concerned is to go there (as all the really concerned people on tv do), we wouldn’t think that they have nothing so surely anything we do will help (as a guy standing in front of kids playing in a ditch conveys) and if we could see the complex social web of family, friends, groups, local businesses and services, community movers and shakers who get things done, we might start to think about how we can move obstacles out of their way instead of imagining we’re the much needed star of the show.
Many NGOs already have the capacity to help address this. Currently a lot of citizen journalism posted from the more marginalised parts of the world looks a lot like Western backpackers with camcorders. Maybe that’s a language/translation issue and those guys are just emulating the role model our society has held up. But NGOs have been working on community media projects for years – why can’t the graduates and the outputs of those projects flood into the spaces left by the redundant images of victimhood?
In Communication for Another Development: Listening before telling, Wendy Quarry and Ricardo Ramirez argue that to have proper communication in development, i.e. an exchange between all parties involved, requires different kinds of development organisations to the ones we have now. At present the development industry tells: it tells poor people what to do, it tells the public what it wants them to do, donors tell NGOs what they should be doing, NGOs tell donors what they think they want to hear. There are projects that claim to give the poor a voice but they always had a voice, the problem is that no one appears to be listening. I haven’t finished the book yet so I don’t know how it ends. However, the point that you have to listen to people before you can help them seems uncontentious and yet oddly absent in our cultural landscapes.
News of one relatively rich guy’s plan to try and help can travel round the world in hours but the views of those he plans to help have yet to reach us.
(Am I equating poor people with farm animals? No, just saying none of us come into the world knowing everything about everything. An example of a personal screw up in the Third World Society would’ve been a better example but I didn’t go in there because it was clear from a distance that they were posh kids on a pity trip)