Challenging perceptions of development

VINCENT BYRNE explores issues of stereotyping and commodification of aid in international aid agency fundraising appeals.

I remember several years ago being in a parish with two young Rwandan Students who had survived the genocide and were in refugee camps when they were under 10 years old. They were very positive and hopeful for the future.

It was strange then to discover one thing that they did find concerning, and that was ‘The Wee Box’ provided by SCIAF. They saw the fact that poverty was so explicitly identified with black faces as reinforcing of stereotypes, stereotypes that white aid agencies use to commodify aid.  

Our influence over global markets is limited but that does not diminish our desire to see localised benefits in areas of development overseas.  Great needs require the raising of funds, a level of education and a practical and realistic knowledge of the most efficient way to apply funding. The work carried out by aid agencies with connections to the Church is well known and rightly celebrated, especially the multitude of projects covered by SCIAF.

What of the discomfort of Africans who are now part of our community about the way Africans are presented in fundraising campaigns?  How do we give dignity to those whom we show in need and at the same time reduce stereotypes in our own increasingly diverse parishes?  

The cover of the February/March edition of Open House gave me pause for thought. We saw two children with a background of poverty smiling away. The accompanying article by Duncan McLaren was informative and sensitive to language at times, and covered the complex issues faced in areas of development.  

The poster for the Wee Box refers to children with ‘disabilities’. This is taken straight from the words of Pope Francis and indicates the poverty of inclusive language in Italian. The direct translation for disabled is invalid, more exactly less-valued. What we are introduced to are children who are of less value, not children who face different challenges, or whose needs are complex. The words ‘crisis’ and ‘suffer’ also have their own negative connotations. This does not dismiss the work done but highlights the difficulties development agencies face. 

The aim of the picture is to present the work done by an agency in a way that will encourage people to become donors. The picture shows the children smiling, indicating that the motivation should not be pity, but as described in the article one of ‘empathy’. The story of the child Malia informs us of the depth of surgical intervention required and because we are stakeholders the hope is that we will continue to support development projects. The benefits are presented as life changing for those involved and particularly for Melia. The individual is made real by the fact we know her name. Other than the initial clumsiness of the word ‘disabilities’, the media communicates enough information to encourage contributions to the Wee Box campaign.

Other issues emerge when we step back from the poster. The photo can be seen to say, ‘This is Africa’. That is, ‘Africa is a place where people live in poverty’. The continent is made up of 54 countries. Images of Africa can give the impression that it is just one country in which the poverty exists at the same level throughout. It is true that 40% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa live below the $1.90 a-day poverty level (World Bank Figures 2018). What is not being picked up is that Africa is diverse in all sorts of ways. 

Take a step back further and we see black faces. The stereotype is that children in Africa with black faces are always in crisis and always suffering. 

It is obvious that this is not the intention of the picture but in the distillation of development communication, there are nuances, undetected by our palate, which are bitter in the mouths of those who see their own faces in these pictures.  To say that they come from a country always in crisis and suffering diminishes their own sense of standing.  Ask who the people are whose faces we see in resources for development, and the uncomfortable answer is our fellow parishioners of African descent.  Even more critical, their children who sit in classrooms where these pictures are prolific. 

An alternative view

Radi-Aid ( is an annual campaign created by the Norwegian Students’ & Academics’ International Assistance. Its goal is to challenge perceptions around issues of poverty and development, change the way fundraising campaigns communicate, and break down dominating stereotypes.  Its website explains:

‘Through the media and the aid sector, audiences are often presented with a one sided and oversimplified depiction of countries and people in the global South. The narrative is often centred around unfortunate individuals in need of monetary assistance. This perpetuates the Western stereotypical perception of developing countries and reinforces the so called “white saviour” mind set. Our wish is for stories to be shared through the voices of those who are being portrayed, that stories focus more on how individuals are working to better their own situation, and for a more nuanced portrayal of local contexts’. 

If we measure this against the images that were used in Open House, we can see areas of divergence in need of convergence.  In the desire for local context would it be unreasonable to enquire what country are we in? How did the child’s injury come about? Who gave her treatment? What does she enjoy about walking? In questions like these the individual is brought out of a two-dimensional setting and placed in a wider context.  We move from a person in need of treatment to a person. 

RadiAid produce their own satirical videos showing how stereotypes can be sustained and new ones created. Their first video was entitled Aid for Norway where a song was produced by African singers with the intention of raising money for freezing Norway.  Since Norway experienced severe winters, Africans who live in a warmer climate should donate their radiators. Images were shown of Norwegians struggling with their harsh winters. How could Africans possibly do nothing? The point was that the images, although real, had no context. 

RadiAid moved into a new sphere when they decided to offer awards for positive media and negative media representation. These awards were given every year for five years until 2017. They are described as the Golden Radiator Award and the Rusty Radiator Award. The Rusty Radiator Award in 2017 was given to Comic Relief for Ed Sheeran’s visit to East Africa. It was said of the video that This is a video about Ed Sheeran. It’s literally poverty tourism.’

The response from Comic relief contained the comment,

‘The Radi-Aid Awards rightly challenge organisations like Comic Relief to be as responsible, fresh and relevant as possible when conveying our issues. That’s a challenge we have always tried to meet and will continue to do so, perhaps now with a little extra energy’. 

In 2019 Comic Relief sent Stacey Dooley to Africa where she placed on her Instagram page a picture of herself with a Ugandan Child. The picture caused widespread national debate. The most quoted negative comment came from David Lammy MP who said:

‘… this just perpetuates tired and unhelpful stereotypes. Let’s instead promote voices from across the continent of Africa and have serious debate’.’ 

The winner of the Golden Radiator Award was War Child Holland. It showed a young boy having fun with Batman in a refugee camp. The child is lifted on Batman’s shoulders in an attempt to fly and Batman and the child compete in arm wrestle to see who is the strongest. As the video progresses, we discover that Batman is in fact his father, who is the ultimate hero in his life. In presenting the Award RadiAid said:

‘What a powerful video! Our heroes are never too far away from us. They give us strength, hope, peace and the drive to strive for the best. One thing this video did a really good job of was showing the kid as a kid. The children are dependent on their parents/guardians.  Effective humanitarian crisis imagery’.

Vincent Byrne is a retired priest in the Diocese of Paisley. 


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.