Gemma Munday is the global stories lead at Restless Development, based in our Uganda hub (pictured above).
Lush greenery, incredible wildlife and friendly, fun people. This is Uganda – a place I now call home. Often the images shown of countries like Uganda in the Western media are far from this.
What images do we see? Nameless children looking up sadly into the camera, images portraying people with no context.
What do these images do?
These are stereotypes that show a single narrative of Sub-Saharan Africa as a homogenous place that should be pitied. In reality Africa is a huge continent full of many diverse countries, culture and innovation. It’s not that poverty doesn’t exist, but that the constant stream of these kind of images reduces countries in Africa down to poverty only. It’s dehumanising and denies people of their dignity.
This way of raising awareness and fundraising started most famously with Band Aid, the Feed the World charity set up in response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine. This charitable effort was incredibly important at the time to raise awareness of global issues. However, our understanding of how we should frame these issues has moved on. Their good intentions can’t mask the fact it reduced people in countries such as Ethiopia down to helpless victims.
The debate in the media.
You might have seen the debate rising in the media this week about celebrity journalist Stacey Dooley’s visit to Uganda. She has been criticized for posting images (see below) that reinforce these negative stereotypes of poverty. MP David Lammy has been vocal about the images, alongside Uganda based activist group No White Saviors – who pointed out they don’t want to stop Westerners coming to Africa, they just want to stop white people being depicted as the hero of other people’s stories.
Stacey is a brilliant young female journalist who I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a platform with on a feminist panel. However, just like Band Aid, her good intentions can’t cover for the message her images send out.
For years using pity-driven images has been good for fundraising. It’s not that the money doesn’t go towards supporting people around the world – it does!
The issue is that it has declining returns in the long run.
Firstly, people lose faith as they give money for years yet only see the same images of suffering, not progress. In fact, 77% of the UK public think that efforts to tackle global poverty over the last decade have made little or no difference. Yet the world’s poorest countries have made huge progress towards being self-reliant in our lifetime.
Did you know that we have halved the number of children under five dying in the world? Or that we are on the brink of ending Malaria for good? Countries working together to solve poverty has made a difference. These are the stories that need to be told.
Secondly, people become detached because the images they see don’t feel related to their lives. We are rarely given proper context about their lives, their family and their community. Just nameless victims to be saved.
What needs to happen.
What we must do instead is show images and messages based on respect and empathy. Charities, the media, government and organisations must work harder to educate the public about the complex realities of poverty. Pitying people isn’t right. Evoking empathy is. It breaks down the ‘us and them’ narrative, allowing us to understand someone else’s perspective and relate to them as a human being.
We need collaborative and creative approaches to storytelling. Something we champion at Restless Development is training young people to tell their own stories through methods like mobile journalism. This means they can tell their stories in the way they want them to be told, ensuring they have the power over their own images and narratives.
We are also starting a new programme with partners and communities to design alternative ways of doing community development projects, where young people and their communities truly lead in changing the issues that affect them most. People sharing their own stories will be an important part of this. We must listen and learn from the voices of those who matter most in these kind of debates. This will open up new conversations about how we solve issues like global poverty.
I hope this media coverage helps change people’s perspectives so that we can change the narrative for good.