This is a guest post by Numa. She identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.
Initially the first post of this series was a standalone one that I had written to provide context for my thoughts on the field of international development and the theories underpinning it. It was only once I submitted the entry as a guest post for Jaded that I figured that there was more I wanted to say on the matters that I had touched on. Namely, I wanted to discuss how the example I gave of my classmates behaviour towards children in Uganda, was not isolated instance of ignorance, but was the result of wider cultural/societal attitudes that are reflected in both development theory and institutions.
To me, the way privilege and power relations manifest themselves within international development is rooted in the colonial past. Despite the trend of embracing a human rights approach, we still operate on colonial assumptions at the most basic level. The main thrust of development interventions is still to progress, to ‘move forward’, to essentially become more like the West.
“The West,” in this instance does not refer to any actual geographic location, but refers to an identity or a set of socio-economic/cultural values born out of centuries of European imaginings of themselves and the “Orient.” In the 19th century this image of Self took a particular form based around colonialism that is still prevalent today. Whiteness, wealth, and wisdom, became key to the European identity and this identity transcended beyond Europe to the white colonies of North America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Eurocentric ideas of economic and social development became regarded as objective ideals that were credited for the self-determined success of European advancement. A linear model of progress towards an ideal civilization based on these ideas was adopted, one that places the countries closest to Western ideals at the most “civilized” end of the scale.
Countries that haven’t reached this ideal state of civilization are considered to be “developing,” and their failure to reach this state is pathologized. While it is perhaps no longer as explicitly stated, “developing” countries are still read as helpless, lazy, or incompetent, and this imagery is repeatedly reinforced through media, literature, and art.
One way that ideas about the West and Third World are perpetuated is through development organisations themselves. At an individual level, the imagery of the Western self as helpful, industrious, and competent is constantly used to attract support and donations for development organisations/charities. Third World plight is commodified. Brown bodies are presented for consumption.
Let me give you an example.
It was the day after an event and my colleague and I were reviewing what had happened over lunch. At the event he had the opportunity to hold a presentation about our charity and wanted to know what I thought. I told him quite honestly that I was a bit concerned about what had been an informative presentation on our charity’s work had ended up as, “Look at these poor African children, they are so cute! Let’s collectively ‘aww’ at the cuteness!”
I said that it made me uncomfortable having so many privileged white people cooing over these children and he agreed. But then he pointed out something that’s stuck with me. He told me that even if he had tried to explain our work and the issues children living in townships face, ultimately it’s the pictures of the kids that have the greatest impact. Brown children sell, apparently.
And that’s what gets me. Because it’s not just small charities catering to wealthy patrons. All charities I know use images of their ‘beneficiaries’ in promotional/fundraising material and often provide little context for how the people depicted benefited exactly. This is particularly true for websites, where there are always images, but rarely captions that contextualise them.
Regardless. Even with context given, most of the time it’s still just povertyporn. While few charities peddle the starving, helpless, sadface looking pictures of yore (think of the imagery popular in ’80s and ’90s), the current stock of happy smiling brown people photos is meant to elicit the same response. The wealthy Western audience consumes these images and is meant to feel responsible, not for contributing to the fucked up system that has led to gross global inequality, but for saving these brown people from their misery. The agency is always placed in the hands of the West, or global North.
It’s uncanny that so many people fail to see how depictions of agency-less brown folks continue to echo the rhetoric of colonialism. The ‘natives’ were always too childlike, simple, brutish, sexually depraved, and basically incapable of governing themselves so the British had to set up camp and govern for them. Not much seems to have changed. We ‘natives’ continue to remain too simple to deal with our own shit. The global South still needs help.
However, the kind of help the global South needs is not the kind they’re being offered. There is no doubt about the fact that there are millions of people in developing countries that could use help, but that’s not because they and their governments are incompetent (OK, governments are often incompetent, but that’s for another discussion). It’s because they’re operating in a global system that revolves around fucking the majority of people in this world over to benefit the few.
But the measures needed to redress global inequality don’t sell. Instead we have charities, NGOs, and CBOs in Western countries that continue to rely on simplified saviour messages, positioning brown bodies as helpless victims. I often feel bad for obsessing about imagery used by NGOs in the West instead of, you know, finding a cheap, pro-poor, sustainable solution to the energy crisis, but am I wrong for thinking that it’s kind of important?
In many, if not all countries in the global North, people’s views on the global South and its inhabitants is still mostly shaped by information they receive from NGOs or on rare occasions, the news. The images they see on the Oxfam or Save the Children posters/websites/TV ads, are usually the only images of X nationality they will ever see. When I say “Bangladesh,” in response to being asked “where I’m really from” many people recall floods and swathes of poor brown people looking sadly at the camera, if they know where the country is at all.
Perhaps I am naïve, but when you are raised to believe that you can help to save the dirty, brown Other, won’t that feed into your world view, and doesn’t that ultimately ensure the continuation of the colonial imagery of the simple ‘native’?
When I showed the first draft of this post to Jaded, one of the suggestions she made was that I talk about what the image of the colonial native does to both parties, how the imagery strips personhood away from them. However, I wasn’t entirely sure if that was the case, because it certainly didn’t feel like it had the same kind of impact on those who we think of as Westerners, compared to those of the Third World.
I’m not sure about the personhood issue, so I’d like to know what others think about it. What I’m sure about though, is that these stereotypes, are like a smokescreen. As long as the same old arguments about the failure of countries to develop are trotted out, the power dynamic along geo-political, economic, and racial lines will continue unchecked and global economic-social justice will remain an unachievable.