Tell a better story – tell the whole story

Communications and development… A match made in heaven?

It is safe to argue that the development community taken as a whole does not boast the best record when it comes to ‘good’ development and ‘good’ communications …

Does anyone remember Kony 2012?1.jpg

Arguably a faultless marketing tool, this 29 minute film is perhaps the most infamous means of communication employed by a charitable organisation in recent years. At the time it quickly impassioned a wide audience and Invisible Children’s supporter base surely increased.  Though this can’t be denied, the overarching consequence of Kony 2012 was to mobilise a kind of ‘‘viral compassion’’ entirely ‘‘detached from the facts’’.

The campaign is reminiscent of Live Aid, 1984 in which a deeper analysis of the root cause of poverty or related issues was neatly sidestepped in order to present a simple story. – A simple story that encourages dependency and blame and makes it easy for the (Western) audience to be self-congratulating about their benevolence.


So often these campaigns place the needs of the givers (usually White and western) in higher esteem than the beneficiaries or receivers (usually Brown or Black and completely passive in the ‘story’). Yes, these measures bring in donations and this sector is at the mercy of donations. However, should our accountability to the individuals we seek to help be overshadowed by this? Why does this continue to happen? The end goal, put simply, is to bring in greater support and ultimately money. A reductionist account tends to do just this. A story free from complexities, where donors can be sure of a positive role for them to assume, gets the money rolling in!

However, the utilisation of ‘poverty porn’, which generally consists of images of vulnerable children; unable to focus on the camera lens with flies in their eyes as below, does little to contribute towards greater human freedom (Arendt, 1963). So we stumble upon a crossroads: the dilemma of need vs. dignity.


Are our hands really tied? Recently there have been some advocates who suggest this ‘flies in their eyes’ style communications may not inherently cause increases in support.

Poverty is multifaceted and cannot be told effectively by a single, overly simplified story. However the ‘poverty porn’ narratives dominate what the West sees of the developing world. This is the story the Western world has been fed and sees as ‘normal’. When a single story is repeatedly reinforced, it becomes difficult for an audience to see anything else (Adichie, 2014).

Perpetuating poverty as a normal way of life may harm increasing the support base of NGOs and charities. Incessant exposure to despairing images in charitable communications can induce people to feel overly cynical about the success of aid and NGOs. This is particularly apt when an oversimplified narrative is presented to potential donors. If the issues at hand are presented to have quick fixes when in reality this is far from the truth, supporters may begin to doubt the work being done when these solutions fail to materialise. These kinds of communications also highlight a huge contrast between donors and beneficiaries so misses an opportunity to build meaningful relationships and engaging long-term partnerships; making donors feel futile and removed from the situation on the ground. As has previously been suggested in this series, individuals are more likely to give when they feel useful – but this does not always occur in this scenario.

So, where do we go from here? This will be explored in the next and last instalment of this series.

Adichie, C. (2014). We should all be feminists. New York: Anchor.

Arendt, H. (1963). Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Viking Press.


Author: SeeBeyondBorders

SeeBeyondBorders provides children in Cambodia with access to quality teaching and learning at school. Our approach is through sustainable development, helping communities help themselves.

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