Telling Positive Stories – The backlash


Also published by Generation C Magazine and Development in Action

Telling positive stories about Africa - The memo

Does anyone really understand the logic behind this PR campaign? [Created using easel.ly]

A fair amount of hand-wringing has been going on lately regarding a narrative in aid/development that has been pretty prevalent for at least as long as I’ve been interested in it (around 5 years) – ‘telling positive stories about [Africa/Sub-saharan Africa/the developing world etc]’.

J. (previously of Tales From The Hood) recently posted this link on Aidsource before making the following points:

1) The aid industry has been getting advertising makeovers for, oh…. FORTY YEARS. It’s time to take off the makeup. Can we stop “advertising” and just “tell the truth” already?

2) Telling the public great stories about ‘what works’ is fine, I suppose. But the real messages that they seem to be missing are the ones about what DOESN’T work. (just sayin‘)

The article he was replying to – read it – highlights this position:

“Communication about development aid has long focused on making the case for its need,” says Tom Scott, director of global brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. “There is a huge opportunity to talk about how it works and what it does – to tell the real success stories that exist.”

This was referenced in the discussion about this article on Aidsource as absolutely not being a new idea. I’d definitely have to agree with that one – since starting my first NGO comms job about 10 months ago I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard speakers at events or read articles by influential comms types telling us that ‘success stories’ are the main way forward. While I think there is a lot of use for this approach – the advocacy done by ONE on supporting better aid budgets for example – it is, first and foremost, an advocacy tool and one that might go some way to explaining how NGOs distort the issues and, in the long run, disappoint their public.

Elliot Ross over on Africa Is A Country also recently posted an article responding to a new campaign by Mama Africa aimed at combating ‘Hollywood stereotypes’ of African men (video below). While giving some praise to the work of this organisation he condemns the video for both being a little forced/not funny as well as tying into the idea of PR being the answer to the problems of Africa:

Sure, the Western media continues shamelessly to traffic in vicious stereotypes of black African masculinity drawn from the deep histories of racist iconography that remain at their disposal in spite of (more likely under the cover of) the general subscription to a rigid politically correct consensus. Yes, it would be nice if they would give this a rest once every few centuries.

But do we really need this kind of “positive image for Africa” stuff? At best it can be framed as a necessary corrective, but the whole PR “brand Africa” shtick is boring, patronising, and finally insubstantial in its attempt to transform the West’s time-honoured way of imagining the continent, ideas that are thoroughly tangled up with ingrained – and much beloved – supremacist notions of Euro-American culture and identity. This isn’t all going to go away because you pointed out that there’s a bloke in Nairobi called Brian who works in HR.

Here’s the video:

While these critiques are interesting and certainly worth thinking about, it strikes me that they are very much from a ‘development’ point of view. A rather brilliant article on Ugandan media site Journalism.co.ug about police and government pressure on the way in which journalists report the news showcased a slightly different angle on why the ‘positive stories’ narrative could have negative consequences – it is worth quoting it at length (HT @Natabaalo):

[An anonymous police officer] says journalists should do what the police order them to do during demonstrations, after all “when journalists are injured by demonstrators, it is still the police to blame”.

But recent trends show journalists are more likely to be harmed by the police and other security agencies than by protesters. Especially since Walk to Work protests started in April last year, sections of the media have been singled out as “enemies of Uganda’s recovery” by President Yoweri Museveni.

For publishing pictures of opposition leaders and supporters being roughed up by security agencies, Museveni has argued that sectors like tourism and investments from abroad would be negatively affected. He has called for a different approach to reporting so that the media depicts a different side of Uganda – as a great investment destination and tourism hub.

This type of journalism, a lot of times misinterpreted as development journalism, is what is preached by most leaders in poor and transitional countries. Some have argued that in poor countries, the government of the day needs support. They add that the government in such a country will probably have to take decisions which are based on the common good but which harm individual liberties.

The idea that fair, free journalistic reporting could inhibit both Government and development aspirations is one that showcases a worrying marriage of convenience. Aid skeptics and jaded development workers have long supported oppressive regimes as a justified means-to-an-end – Kagame in Rwanda, Park Chung-hee in South Korea or China, in general, are oft-cited examples of ‘bad guys doing good things’ in terms of economic development. But this betrays a double standard – as outsiders looking to help, we cannot condemn one thing (i.e. civil liberties) for ourselves while condoning it for others without weakening our position.

While the idea of ‘telling positive stories’ might end up patronising Africans, it also might end up supporting those regimes that systematically undermine human rights, particularly those regarding the freedom of expression and the activities of the media. Without mechanisms of domestic accountability these governments are much more likely to revert back to being ‘bad guys who do bad things’. As an industry and as an international community, we cannot be complicit in that process. Particularly because you know that, once these governments do revert, our governments will condemn them publicly, only to be further undermined when it is pointed out that they had aided such leaders in attaining such a position.

And then the cycle continues. Or should I say ‘downwards spiral’?

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2 thoughts on “Telling Positive Stories – The backlash

  1. Pingback: Background Noise | UpLook

  2. Pingback: Telling positive stories – the backlash « The DiA Blog

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