While perusing one of my favorite websites, Sociological Images, I came across a link for this fledgling photo project by Duncan McNicholl, a civil engineer who is a member of Engineers Without Borders Canada .
This simple post (and the comments) touched on key points that I’ve spent quite some time thinking about since well before we started the adoption process in December 2008. What good are NGOs doing in African nations? What do the people these NGOs are supposedly serving think about the work being done in their countries? What are the perceptions of Africans held by the privileged West? How does mainstream media play into those perceptions?
As I think about the issue of poverty in developing nations, I can clearly remember a very white, very well-fed Sally Struthers emploring me through my television that, for the price of just one cup of coffee a day, I, too, could save an African child. Even as a teenager who was much more preoccupied with boys, I remember being dubious of Sally’s earnestness.
I would like to believe that NGOs are trying to serve the people in Africa and I know that most of the staff that volunteer their time in developing nations have the best of intentions for the work that they do, be it setting up clean water systems or establishing medical clinics in rural communities. But…I also believe that the solutions themselves have to and should come from the people supposedly being served; that it is not up to outside entities to dictate what and how things should be set up and structured in other countries. When outside people, who generally come from different cultures, countries and classes than those being “served” are the ones that determine the rules and supervise the money, it makes a statement about the capabilities of people to manage their own lives and destiny and growth.
I get that Unicef and other agencies need pictures of poor people that fit the idea held by Westerners when they think of abject poverty. They need those pictures to emotionally manipulate wealthy folks to give money to poor folks because wealthy folks don’t like to part with their money that much and when they do they are very particular about who will receive that money. But it is manipulation. And it clearly isn’t lost on the folks in Chagunda, Malawi who noticed that it was only the stereotypically poor looking villagers that were captured by NGO photographers.
How are those pictures influencing the paternalism the US often has for developing countries? How do they inform American's ideas of what Africans look like, how they live? What exactly was Sally Struthers trying to prove, with her video of starving black children, distended bellies, flies circulating?