The danger of a single story

His two big brown eyes are staring at me. A tiny fly is buzzing around his ear. His breathing is fast and his stomach swollen. A voiceover introduces me to Jon, or little Jon, as they call him. A two-year-old boy suffering from severe malnutrition. Seeing the advertisement from Save The Children on television again caught me by surprise.

By: Frederiek Veenenbos

The advertisement had won the Dutch ID Leaks award for something that calls close to being the ‘most stereotype campaign’ of the year 2016. One of their earlier campaigns, which was very similar to the advertisement I was looking at, had already received loads of criticism. In this new ad, shots of Jon’s face and belly were alternated with images from children like him, as the ad tells you. Children are portrayed crying or with little to no life left in their eyes. The solution to these shocking, or maybe no longer shocking, images is presented as being straightforward: all you have to do is donate three euros monthly. As Marc Broere, development journalist and chief editor of the platform on global development Vice Versa, wrote last year: Save The Children hasn’t learnt anything.

The advertisement about Jon is just one example of the stereotype imaging that has been subject of fierce discussion within the NGO industry. Already in 1981, the New Internationalist wrote about controversial campaigns coming from NGOs about aid programs in ‘developing’ countries. As stated above, the discussion about the stereotyping of these so-called developing countries seems to continue ever since. The key arguments in the discussion however remain the same: the framing is too simplistic and lacks context. Besides, some critics have expressed their concerns for the dominant frame to be rather unethical.

" This single story robs people of their dignity

So what exactly is this stereotypical frame of the African continent? A good source for finding answers to this question is the book Representations of Global Poverty by Nandita Dogra. She is a postdoctoral fellow of the University of London and has extensively studied development, social policy and the management of NGOs. Dogra refers to the frame as the dualistic frame of difference and oneness: “In sum (and to put it crudely) the two worlds … are first stretched and placed on two extreme ends and then they are connected or brought together on, and through, the common and universal ground of humanity.” A lot of the ingredients to this frame were obviously present in the advertisement concerning Jon. A first characteristic is the important role of children. In almost 42% of the advertisements that Dogra analysed, children seemed to play the central role in the campaigns. And in cases where it isn’t children in the centre of attention, it appears to be mainly women or the combination of mother and child. The consequence of continuously portraying of the continent through children is that advertising campaigns can evoke the idea that the continent as a whole would still be young, ignorant and in need of help from grownups (read: the west).

Another important characteristic of the stereotype framing is the passive attitude of the locals in contrary to the active attitude of the developed countries and aid organisations. It’s the voiceover on repeat telling the audience that they – read: you – are able to make the difference, that the drive for change is in your hands and so is Jon’s future. The way the active and passive roles are being distributed in this matter reinforces the supposedly characteristic differences between the developed and developing countries, which finds its origin in its colonial past. However an essential part of the frame that Dogra identifies, is as she describes that: “The messages suggest that ‘others’ can be engaged with only on the basis of a shared humanity, not a shared history.” By neglecting the wider context and telling the story as that of an individual, the frame denies the connectedness that comes with global poverty and obscures the international power relations. Through the perception that is being created in this frame you could say that the image of the west as the white saviour is being maintained. However, the most important consequence, that encompasses all of the above, is like Adichie saysthat this single story “robs people of their dignity.”

" By displaying despair and hopelessness the media is telling the truth about Africa, but not the whole truth

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, award-winning Nigerian novelist well-known for her books Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, is one of the critics that has publicly spoken about the (mis)framing of the African continent in western media. In her TED talk The Danger of A Single Story, she doesn’t talk particularly about the framing in media, nor about NGOs or aid. Rather, she zooms out on the complex discussion and consequences of stereotypes alive in all kind of sectors within society and shares her personal experience on the matter. She points out that “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 incomprehensive people fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and aids, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind white foreigner.”

But, Adichie is not the only one warning the world about the misrepresentation of the mighty continent. As mentioned, there are several journalists, writers and economists that criticise this one-eyed view portrayed in NGO campaigns. Among them is Andrew Mwenda. He is a Ugandan journalist and founder of the newspaper The Independent, which motto is: you buy the truth, we pay the price. And that is not just a pay-off. Mwenda has been arrested and accused several times for publishing stories that would contain harmful content in the eyes of the Ugandan government. Besides being a critical journalist, he’s also well known for his critique on foreign aid. During his TED talk, of which the name (Aid for Africa? No thanks) speaks for itself, he not only talked about the danger of aid for building African democracies but also highlighted the consequences of the framing in NGOs media messages. “By displaying despair, helplessness and hopelessness the media is telling the truth about Africa, and nothing but the truth. However, the media is not telling us the whole truth.” According to Mwenda the dominant frame of NGO communication should move from poverty reduction to a frame of wealth creation. Instead of highlighting the rather negative circumstances it should be a challenge of hope.

Speaking of hope, several studies have found that there is an on-going shift amongst NGOs towards the use of more positive and diverse images of the continent. As Dogra points out in her book, NGOs too believe that a positive change has been made in the recent years towards showing a more active attitude of the locals, underlining their initiatives and strength. Yet there remains criticism that these ‘positive’ frames are not always accommodated of enough context. The discussion about telling ‘the whole story’ therefore should maybe not only be about the choice between rather ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ images, but most essentially be about putting them in the bigger picture of current and past global relations. A step towards regaining a more diverse and comprehensive view of the African continent could be, as Adichie says, “When we realize that there is never a single story about any place” and that like Dogra mentioned, every story is embedded in a larger context. Because when it comes to stories like Jon’s, there is more that connects us than just humanity.

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