The Narrative Divide

Check out this trenchant writing from Kenyan author/journo Binyavanga Wainaina on the perception bias infecting western media (and here’s another take on that topic).   He rather hilariously bull’s-eyes a spear in the gut of Western journalism, their spouses and their tennis partners, we do-gooders at the big aid agencies.

Coincidentally, his rant covers some of the same territory as my recent post on Chinese model of “charity”.  Glad to see he doesn’t get sucked into a romanticization of Chinese exploitation.  Rather, his point seems simpler:  many Africans would prefer to get screwed by Chinese businesses than patronized or sanctimonyized by the proverbial whites in shining armor of Big Aid.

Wainaina rages and we humanitarians seem high on the hit list.  That can’t be good.   It is easier to counter the pampered elites of the Western intellectual critocracy than someone born and raised in one of the nations we’ve been so diligently saving these past forty years.

Moreover, his view of aid seems reinforced in many of the 199 comments on his piece.  Here’s Cornhil on June 4:  “You would have thought that after the disaster that is and was the post-earthquake agency bonanza in Haiti, a little humility would be appropriate from the Aid Industry, but apparently not.”

Damningly, even some who take umbrage with his “stereotyped” or “sneering” diatribe remark that he is of course spot on about the aid workers of this world, almost as if it were to be taken as a given.  Ouch!  Defending the West but leaving the aid industry out in the cold.  Where’s the love?  Where’s the understanding?  Where’s our money going to come from?

(A digression: “In 1991, Africa ceased to exist. The world was safe, and the winners could now concentrate on being caring, speaking in aid language bullet points.”  That’s an almost perfect summation of the intermingling of politics and aid — the establishment of governance through the imposition of a world welfare state.].

Wainaina is at his sharpest showing our collective Western understanding of Africa to be based upon the most preposterously stereotyped terms.  Hold that thought and flash back to the fit of humanitarian arm flapping at Kony 2012’s volcanic success.  As I blogged, the criticism of Invisible Children’s vanity video went pretty viral itself.  In that outburst of backlash I failed to grasp the significance and weight of Ugandan voices criticising a Western organization in the Western media.  What gives?  Weren’t Ugandans supposed to be invisible?

Recently, I heard digital media expert Paul Conneally challenge us humanitarians to avoid becoming an analogue enterprise in a digital age (see his speech here).  The entire humanitarian arena is abuzz with the potential of digital technology to improve its work.  From SMS health messages to patients (“Please remember to take your ARVs now”) to real-time satellite mapping of epidemics to a fundraising blitz of mobile phone chuggers, we are fast imagining a new golden age.  But Conneally’s core message wasn’t about technological advances of NGOs  – a reform in how we do our work – but in the transformation driven by the digital empowerment of the beggar/victim/beneficiary/target population.

People who will want to talk about our work are going to have access not only to information, but to the means of producing it.  They will have access not only to our opinions, but to our opinion platforms.  In other words, the helpless victims of Africa, like the Ugandans who outed Kony 2012’s disdain for accuracy in depicting the reality of Uganda today, are going to take away our western monopoly over the narratives defining their societies.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, white ears and eyes will consume the stories of brown people as told by brown people themselves, not white visitors to brown places.  In the process, these browns may have something to say about all those starving baby fundraising appeals.  They may even have something to say about all the appeals, letters, articles and interviews from the agencies whose guidelines prohibit the use of starving baby images and so sleep well in the self-evidence of their enlightenment, beneficence and narrative integrity.

4 thoughts on “The Narrative Divide”

  1. This is an excellent – and amusing – take on the (too slow) turning of the aid table. I just wish there were more Binyavanga Wainaina’s out there telling their side of the story. For all the lip service paid to the importance of listening to and consulting affected populations, humanitarian agencies do too little to act on what they hear. It is time to end this hypocrisy by bridging the divide between going through the motions of listening and actually taking the ‘beneficiary’ perspective into account in the design and implementation of programs. The best aid agencies would do so if they had the right tools and the incentives to use them. Social media is only part of that process…

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