Great Stories, Partners, Philanthropy

Playing our Part in Africa

The stories we tell about people who receive the benefits of charity are very important. They are often a key part of what motivates us to give, they are the way we express progress, and they are the way we assure ourselves that what we are doing is really making a difference. But there is something else going on with these stories. As my friend Stu Taylor of IDE-Canada writes under the psedonym Professor Filmore Buckets in this excellent post on a new blog:

When I lived and worked in Zambia (not, I should note, with IDE), I saw first-hand how this single story can distort not only our perception of people, but also their perceptions of themselves. As development workers, we played a role in a story that had well-defined characters and plotline. We had access to resources, to be doled out to poor rural households on the basis of need. In turn, therefore, they played their role, telling the familiar story of the poor rural household. Our discussions revolved around problems and struggles – a race to the bottom in terms of who experienced the most misery. My wife and I became quite disheartened by this repeated, disempowering story – and the degree to which it became a part of people’s view of their own identity and potential. Later, when we moved to offering villagers loans for sound business plans, we found that the conversation shifted from focusing on the problems to selling us on the solutions. The dialogue became much more empowering – celebrating opportunity and potential.
The common practice of depicting the suffering and desperation of “those people” who so need our help isn’t wrong (though I have heard it described as “poverty porn” in an evocative and actually reasonable critique); I far prefer the story Stu is telling. It is a story of hope and potential. It bothers me that most of us are far more motivated to give in response to a sob story and a slideshow rather than a narrative that honours and affirms the significance off those we seek to support.