Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Narratives of uniqueness

I'm not going to write about Kony2012. Firstly, because many people more familiar with the issues have already weighed in (see here and here, for example). Secondly, because I'd really prefer not to keep such a flawed narrative of Africa alive.

I am going to write about narratives. A lot is said about the use of simple narratives to describe and particularly to fundraise "for" Africa. Working in the industry, I'm more than familiar with the story types, the picture types, the "simple" reality that must always be presented to donors because donors are supposedly unsophisticated and unable to engage with a more complex narrative. The heart-warming family story, the heroic tale (almost always of a woman), the dying child, the old person passing on wisdom and/or giving the next generation a better life thanks to an NGO. They're familiar, they're standard and they're a problem.

But there is another aspect of the stories we tell about Africa that bothers me: the tendency to assume or assert uniqueness. I see it all the time - almost every aid worker I meet seems convinced "his" poor person is special and different and - although they'd never say it - more deserving of help than others. Funding is a limited resource, so those who wish to help are competing for the money. In order to do this, NGOs have learnt to tell competitive stories; stories that portray their particular cause as more worthy or needy or desperate than others. And the easiest way to do this is to pretend that the situation of those you are assisting is unique. Fundraisers use the story of a single person and build in all sorts of identifying details - name, age, number of children, spouse's name (mostly husband's name), hometown, history - she was a teacher, she grew up in a slum, she had 12 children, she used to beg to feed her family. Donors, we are told, cope better with one person in crisis than with millions. They'd rather feed 20 hungry people at a local soup kitchen - or feel like they're doing the equivalent in Somalia or Pakistan - than help 925 million hungry around the world.

Building a unique story is, in fact, easier than building a simple story - there is no shortage of poor, hunger, passive beneficiaries to portray as unique cases of need. But the effect is equally damaging. A simple story convinces donors, outsiders, "audience" that African people are passive, desperate, not very bright and waiting to be rescued. Narratives of uniqueness convince people that the problem is small, manageable and now. Lets them see famine instead of chronic food insecurity, flood or drought instead of protracted violence, one rape instead of a system that doesn't protect women.

These aren't unique problems. They're not immediate and short-term, they're not manageable and they don't affect only a few people. 12 million people are food insecure in South Africa. 7.7 million people in Malawi are poor. This isn't about the individual face of one person, it's a real, large-scale problem. And that is important because it is a recognition that this is the norm for most people and that it will take long-term support and ongoing funding. Kony isn't unique; he's just another warlords*. Like so many others, not just in Africa but in South America, Central Asia, Mexico, parts of Asia-Pacific, Central America and large parts of Russia. Everywhere, in fact, except Western Europe, USA and Australia (maybe). Some warlords don't force children to become child soldiers and sex slaves but many do. Child bride sex slaves and child soldiers aren't exactly unique to Uganda.

Unique stories use one person, one face, to guilt-trip or charm donors into giving money, instead of allowing them to engage with the issues and see the world as it really is. The aid industry has created a reality in which the strategies used to raise funds in the short term prevent people from recognising that the real need is complex, messy, unpleasant and not going away for a very, very long time and choosing to fund development and relief anyway. I don't buy that all donors are unsophisticated but even if they are, I wonder if presenting supposedly unique stories is doing more harm than good.

*Okay, a little about Kony


  1. Hmm. I realize what you're going for here. I've seen plenty of distasteful, "competitive" stories. The worst aim for pity and/or guilt. But I'm pretty sure not all unique stories depict passive, desperate subjects. Nor does it follow that telling unique stories makes readers blind to the problems at hand.

    Doesn't knowing the individual human impact of complex issues help make the case for change on many levels? Aid orgs aren't alone in relying on unique stories. Think of US politicians arguing for policies or activists testifying in front of Congress to advocate change. The unique and tragic story of Trayvon Martin has galvanized America, not just to demand justice in 1 case but to talk about racism.

    Individual stories can wake people up to engage and learn, even about messy stuff. I'd say that connecting to the human level can be powerful. Empathy doesn't make us blind to complexity or unsophisticated. It makes us human. And it's one reason (of many) I work in development.

    Child soldiers aren't unique to Uganda, but that doesn't make their stories undeserving of listeners. If the goal is systemic change, that child's story, his hopes, his ideas should shape what the changed system should be.

  2. I agree, but there is a huge danger, both with the US politicians and with the NGOs, that the individuals stories will be allowed to become more important than the bigger picture. I'd like to see a lot more emphasis on the fact that that individual is one of many like him/her and even when that one person has been helped, the problem will still need attention.