Saturday, September 25, 2010

Telling the development story

Holly and I were sitting in a beautiful conference room, overlooking Boston Common and another summer storm. In a month, she would be in Uganda, creating and implementing a curriculum of peace education for  schools, and I in Egypt, devising a program for the empowerment of Arab women parliamentarians. In that Boston moment though, our tasks were different. I was investigating options for travel insurance that would cover a 20-something female in the world's war-torn zones. She was working on compiling her footage and photographs from Northern Uganda into an informative documentary. As she was brainstorming ways to relate the narrative of the Peace Education Project, she sensitized me to a challenge I have come across during my own field work: How do we tell a story beyond the "starving African child photo"?

You know the photo. You have seen the photo. There may be more variations of it than that iconic National Geographic image of the Afghan girl, but it still recognizably tugs at heartstrings. I am guilty of having taken the photo as well. Holly was reluctant to just use an image that would conjure certain connotations and illicit a certain response without tying the child's or woman's story into the narrative, without explaining why this particular child or this particular woman is important to her and the project.

Her hesitation brings up a wider host of concerns: How do we tell a "development success" or "need of development" story by doing justice to its subjects, without falling into all the cliches or merely capitalizing on the ways in which images and words tug at hearstrings? And if the tugging of the heartstrings turns into financial support for projects that do help, if the story motivates people and jars them and shakes them, then is there something wrong with falling into the cliches?

My friend Carl once enthusiastically told me about a book titled Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth. It chronicles the interwoven life stories of three aid workers living and working in conflict zones and the UN allegedly objected so strongly to the accounts that it tried to stop the publication of the book and penalize the authors who had served among its ranks. I read the book almost voyeuristically, in the way that I imagine people now read Stieg Larsson on airplanes. The writing is one long adrenaline rush of dodging literal and metaphorical bullets from Cambodia to Haiti. The book personalizes humanitarian disasters without dodging 'the ugly'; one of the authors writes practically from a grave as he exhumes victims of mass murder. Only on few instances, in my opinions, do the writers indulge in self-glorification. And yet, something nagged me when I finished the book: Does the adrenaline rush and the voyeurism detract from the attention to the causes? Do we read for the intrigue and the backstory? And if the intrigue and the adrenaline rush manage to draw attention to the causes, do my objections still have teeth?

This morning I attended a presentation by ActionAid, during which individuals involved in their organization shared their stories of having witnessed suffering and depravity. A lot of the audience was in tears after tales of the spread of cholera through infected water or confessions of consecutive days of eating rice, corn or nothing at all. These stories raised awareness and motivated people to give (their time, their money, or otherwise). The friends with whom I attended the event asked me afterward: "What was malaria like?" "What did you use to eat?" I thought about my own stories from the field, the way I tell them, and the stories that people like to hear. On the one hand, by having been 'there' and having witnessed and observed and then by retelling the story, I bring my world(s) 'there' closer to 'here(s)' everywhere. Perhaps retelling the story is a form of service in itself. On the other hand, those who are not colleagues in this field rarely ask me to tell them about my Mentorship and Role Models discussion or the Rights Education training Ciudad Bolivar, Colombia, so what kind of service am I performing if I am constructing the (inherently self-involved) Travelogue Through War Zones narrative that people want to hear?

Communities of conflict are full of stories. Telling them can shrink the world: bring Uganda to Boston, Guatemala to Kentucky, Egypt to Greece. Now: Which stories do we tell? How do we tell them? And why?

And if we tell the wrong stories in the wrong way for the wrong reasons, and they still stir and move and mobilize, then is there something wrong with that?

The Peace Education Project in Uganda is in its second year and it has a story that stirs and moves and mobilizes with its beauty and sincerity and commitment to impact. Much like Holly herself.


  1. Wonderful thought-provoking post! You have perfectly captured my feelings as I struggle to do my job while trying not to replicate the same story and pictures.

  2. I second the above comment - although my work/travels are usually not to those places that most quickly fall into this trap, I know I'm sometimes so afraid of relying on cliched Travel Narrative's signifiers that I don't write accounts at all...and forget that means I have no way at all to bring others to these places.
    I don't know if that made sense. But what you wrote very much did.

  3. I remember seeing an organization take photos only of the 'successes'...huge smiles, the LIFE that exists in the midst of death, destruction, and poverty. They talked about how much better of a response they have received from their supporters since they switched to this approach. Obviously you can't always focus on smiles when those are not to be had. But I think we are all craving for some images of hope.

  4. Thank you all for your wonderfully sweet comments. And Michelle, I am in complete agreement: We are all craving for some images of hope. I recently actually watched a Ted Talk in which Melinda Gates was discussing how marketing campaigns need to be aspirational. It was titled "What non-profits can learn from Coca Cola" and it can be accessed here: