Everybody Wants To Be A Hero

Disclaimer: This article builds on stereotypes. Ironic, since stereotypes are what the Rusty Radiator tries to fight. However, the stereotypes are not of the poor, but of Rusty Radiator fans. Perhaps not more fair and precise than stereotypes about the poor, but using stereotypes is still the easiest way to communicate in few words.

Ask about poverty and how to alleviate poverty, and you will receive different answers depending on whom you ask.

It is not only individuals that hold various truths about poverty alleviation; this also goes for the organizations dedicated to alleviate poverty. In international development discourse, there is a range of various narratives available to frame the fight against poverty. Acknowledging that all are overly simplistic, consider the five alternative narratives about poverty alleviation below, which can all to some degree be said to involve a ‘true’ story about poverty alleviation – meaning that they can be credibly justified. Which of the stories do you agree to the most and think deserves to be most widespread?

A• Poverty is the result of lack of development. Development starts with growth, which requires capital and skills brought in from the more developed countries, primarily via private sector investments.

B• Poverty is the result of poor governance, bad politics and bad leaders, and/or incompetent or lazy people in the countries concerned. There is little we can do about that except to make sure that none of our money goes into the bad leaders’ pockets.

C• Poverty is maintained by post-colonial relations in which well-meaning Western aid and development policies form part by distorting democratic accountability, promoting misguided policies (e.g. civil and political human rights before economic growth), and fostering corruption.

D• Poverty is the result of a complex web of social, political and economic national and international dynamics, ultimately rooted in a history of asymmetric relations between rich and poor, North and South that have always favored the North. Thus, poverty can only be eradicated by addressing and challenging these complex dynamics.

E• There is little you can do about poverty at large, but at least you can help one! We can make sure your monthly donations will be used effectively to help this particular child and her community.

Consider, then what each narrative tell about agency:

Who are the groups that take on the role as the main actors in the fight against poverty? Who are the ‘poverty heroes’ in each narrative?

No surprise if the narrative you favored the most, was the narrative in which you could take a leading role. For the Africa for Norway fans – stereotypically assumed to be people with higher education predominantly in social sciences, politically conscious and perhaps slightly leftish in political orientation – that would be option d. above.

The narrative about complexity delegates the leading role in the fight against poverty to an academic and political elite (or younger people aspiring to become), as it requires good understanding of the complexity, rejection of stereotypes, and quite sophisticated thought that is not for everybody. Moreover, since it insists on the international dimensions of poverty it delegates leading roles to Northerners (even if the same Northerners always insist that Southerners need to take the lead). After all, the Northerners are closer to the global powers, and have more knowledge of well-functioning societies – and in particular, the open and liberal democratic societies about which Northerners take pride and insist on as necessary paths out of poverty for others.

This role is exclusive to the elite. Ordinary people’s role in the fight against poverty are primarily to vote for the most responsible political parties, to accept that tax money goes to official development aid and to share some of their income with politically correct NGOs.

Coincidence? Perhaps.

The academic and political elite have spent more time than others trying to understand poverty and are therefore more likely to choose the narrative about complexity and dismiss simple analyses.

But let us for a moment think that this is not the only reason. For the same narrative is also the narrative that reinforce the leading role to the elite and marginalizes ordinary people to having only supporting roles. And when choosing between different narratives about poverty – all carrying some truth – the one narrative that assigns to ourselves the leading role in the fight against poverty is too good to be questioned even by critically minded intellectuals. Conversely, we tend to put some extra efforts into questioning narratives saying that we are part of the problem – or delegating the main role to business people, which our political segment tends to dislike.

If so, which one of these narratives you hold as the ‘truth’ is not just reflecting your understanding of poverty alleviation, but moreover it can tell us something about whom you want to be assigned the role as the hero in the narrative. And it is worth pondering upon whether the truth about poverty alleviation held by Africa for Norway fans (in the stereotypical version used here) can be ascribed to their own self-identification as being part of a political and academic elite, assigning them a special role as heroes in their chosen poverty alleviation narrative.

The narrative that ‘you can make a difference at least for one poor person’, on the other hand, would intuitively deserve some attraction as it delegates more or less equally to all of us a role as a hero in the fight against poverty (as all can share some from their pockets). But it undermines the exclusive role of the academic and political elite since they cannot do much more than others. Because it depends on a narrative that builds on and reinforces simplicity and stereotypes, which everybody can relate to, neither does it delegate to academics any exclusive role in understanding.

The overall arguments are simplistic and not fair – and they build on stereotypes about Africa for Norway fans that are probably not more true than stereotypes about the poor. Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering. Partly because there may be some truth in it, and because it does not hurt the academic and political elite (or those aspiring towards) to become more modest in their view on their own role in development processes going on in other countries and/or other population segments. Partly also because it can explain why Africa for Norway and similar initiatives do not reach as far as their supporters feel that they deserve. That may be, if non-elite people in the target group feel that there is some elitism involved in this game and therefore choose to opt out. Or perhaps simply because the non-elite won’t easily give up a narrative about development that gives them a key role, only to adapt another narrative placing them in the role as extras to the main actors at best. After all, it is not a tempting offer to be an extra in the superman show when you can choose another truth that gives you the role as a hero on equal terms with the elite, saving the lives of African children at the mere cost of a few take-away coffees per month. 


Written by Øyvind Eggen
Øyvind Eggen is the Policy Director of the Department of Evaluation in Norad. Throughout the years, he has been a visible voice in the debate about Norwegian and international aid, and has a private blogg “Innvikling”, where he posts articles about Norwegian and international aid. His blog and the following article express his personal views, and not those of Norad.


The Student Savior

In an interview I conducted with Chantel Daniels, Program Manager at Volunteer Mzansi Africa, she mentioned that one of the biggest misconceptions is that students believe that “they are coming to save us.”

This savior myth is allowing the students to believe they are the best hope for poor communities incapable of helping themselves, and this is substantiated throughout the experience. Anointed as saviors, students go in, spend a summer or a semester in this or that remote village and leave imagining it transformed, its problems of sanitation or potable water made bearable owing to their intervention. If the projects aren’t as visibly successful, the stark disparities are still guaranteed to heroicize; every student comes back achingly grateful for American largesse.

Their accrued stories of serving in primitive hospitals and sleeping in lightless villages will all feature centrally on essays to graduate school, invest their social media profiles with haloes of moral superiority.

Notably absent in this equation of fulfilment is the voice of the community that bears the cost and intrusion of the bumbling American student’s foray abroad. Study abroad programs, enthusiastically pitched by University administrators and educators alike, rarely if ever measure the impact arriving students have on communities or whether their much praised projects are actually successful in the long term. When study abroad programs are evaluated, they focus only on how or whether learning outcomes of the students are achieved, ignoring completely whether communities really need American students to dig wells or toilets.

This one-sidedness is crucial for myth maintenance and underscores the pretense that the American student, however unskilled or arrogant, is really saving the world.

No Shared Understanding

One of the most troubling consequences of this “Western savior” model deployed by study abroad programs is that it destroys the possibility of any meaningful dialogue across differences.

An August 2015 study by Calvert Jones published in International Studies Quarterly found that the percentages of “shared perception” or the “we feeling” were lower for students who had just returned from studying abroad when compared to those who had not yet left. Returning students were also more “nationalistic” and “patriotic” than before. The results are not surprising. The “Western savior” model of study abroad programs, which focuses only on students, can but produce clannish outcomes; nothing more than a collective cry of “thank God I don’t live here.”

Is Fair Trade Learning the Answer?

Inequalities of power and privilege are not limited to study abroad programs, nor does their existence suggest that global service learning can never yield meaningful dialogue across difference. In a paper entitled “Fair Trade Learning; Ethical Standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism,” Dr. Eric Hartman of Kansas State University outlines some best practices that can save global service learning. They include dual-purpose programming (organizing programs with both student and community outcomes in mind and including community voice and direction in the planning process. A long term vision for sustainability and commitment would mean that students are prepared and oriented before, during and after the program, and community members are given a clear idea of what will be taking place. Other crucial dimensions include an assessment of economic and environment sustainability and budgetary transparency. For those who want to put the standards into action, Hartman has created an online platform at globalservicelearning.org that provides resources for students, educators and university administrators.

Hartman’s Fair Trade Learning Model is currently being deployed by a few organizations. One of the co-authors of the paper, Brandon Blache-Cohen is the Executive Director of Amizade Global Service Learning, a Pittsburgh-based organization that runs service-learning projects around the world. Amizade’s model puts hosts communities at the center of decision-making and places deliberate effort in ensuring that students understand the contexts in which they will be serving.

Particularly notable are its reciprocal programs where students from host communities come to live in the United States instead of just American students going abroad. Another iteration of “fair trade learning” in operation is OmPrakash Edge, an organization that pairs college students with community-based organizations around the world. Community organizations have to go through a screening process before being listed with OmPrakash. Once listed the organization itself decides whether or not they want to host the interested student volunteer.

To get students ready to go, OmPrakash provides web based orientation courses that directly tackle issues of privilege and context, as well as the inadequacy of good intentions.

The Way Forward

Study abroad trips form a large chunk of $173 billion youth travel industry; whether or not they’re learning anything other than gratitude at the good fortune of being born rich and American, students are going abroad and into communities that are often too poor, remote or beholden to whatever little they receive for hosting students to object.

If learning means truly understanding history, culture and context, it must go beyond the easy superiority of imagining the poor as stupid, and hence unable to dig a latrine or better their living conditions.

As it exists, the “Western savior” model of studying abroad functions largely as a means of reiterating old colonial paradigms that students of the West, despite being inexperienced and unskilled, are the saviors for all the rest.


Written by Rafia Zakaria
Rafia Zakaria is an author, attorney and human rights activist from
Pakistan, currently residing in the US. She is a columnist for DAWN
Pakistan and a regular contributor to Al Jazeera America. 
The article is also published in SAIHs Radiator Report. 

Voices From the Field

Last year I interviewed the founder of a small charity in Uganda who fundraise for an orphanage. She said that as a privileged, educated, middle class woman how was it possible for her to ever understand what it must be like growing up as an orphan in her own country.

It made me think long and hard about humanitarian communication, and how the majority of the images we see of developing countries are via either NGOs or the media. I wondered to what extent I have personally been influenced by these images and how this has affected my perceptions of distant others.

NGOs have become one of the key messengers of knowledge about global poverty and their campaigns help us visualise the lives of distant others. John Berger explores imagery in his seminal text Ways of Seeing, saying that the way we see things is affected by what we know and what we believe, and that the way we look at something is based on a set of personal assumptions. Over the years, the imagery used by NGOs has alternated between hope and guilt. Both strategies have received criticism from the media who, ironically, have been equally guilty of misrepresentation. Recently the photographs of emaciated children with flies in their eyes, otherwise known as ‘poverty porn’, have been replaced with positive imagery and success stories. This deliberately positive representation also has its critics and has been labelled as ‘sexy development’ or ‘post-humanitarian communication’. Can we really categorise an image as just positive or negative when everybody will have different interpretations of the same image. So what is the answer? It seems that NGOs have become the scapegoats in the war on poverty, they can’t do right for doing wrong. 

In August this year, it was announced that one in seven people on Earth used Facebook that day. The rapid growth of social media has transformed the way many people communicate. It has also changed the media, relationships, businesses and even toppled governments. Social media was soon embraced by NGOs as a way to engage with the public to create awareness and fundraise, but how has it changed the way that NGOs talk to their audiences? Let’s start with the negatives: the continued use of stereotypes and over simplification of stories.

KONY 2012 is the blatant example of how an NGO can get it so right, but so wrong.

We can’t deny that their hard-hitting, cinematic production and carefully planned seeding strategy targeting celebrities and key policymakers was effective. After all it was the fastest growing viral video of all time, until it was usurped by Gangnam Style. But on the flip side, the video was slated by the mainstream and alternative media as incorrect and insulting. As a result, the producer ended up having a nervous breakdown, Invisible Children folded one year later and ultimately Kony was never found and brought to justice. On the positive side there have been some brilliant social media campaigns such as The Most Shocking Day by Save the Children and Thea’s Wedding by Plan International that have told the stories of distant suffering through a western lens. Similarly, campaigns such as the #Icebucketchallenge and #Nonmakeupselfie were worldwide phenomena raising awareness and money for charities globally.

Over the last decade, there has been a dramatic global increase in the availability of information and communications technology (ICT), especially via mobile phones. 79% of the African population now have a mobile phone account.  

The marketing and communications departments of NGOs have embraced ICTs and social media as new sets of tools to inform their publics of distant suffering.

It’s a pretty fair assumption that the majority of NGO workers are passionate about the work they do. So why do they often get it so wrong? Communicating about poverty and inequality is possibly one of the most important jobs an NGO can do. Poverty is extremely complex and highly political and is so much more than access to resources. This has been highlighted by the Rusty and Golden Radiator Awards. 

Another issue is how many NGO workers have the experience to tell the stories of the recipients of aid? How can some of the people even start to begin to understand the lives of the people they are representing in their communications? This is why I was extremely pleased to hear about WaterAid’s new Voices from the Field (VFTF) programme. The initiative was designed to bring WaterAid’s supporters closer to their project work through a steady flow of up to date communications content. In 2012, WaterAid recruited specialised local staff in Nepal and Madagascar whose specific remit is to gather still and moving images of their work and ensures that images are captured with dignity and respect. This is a highly effective way of meeting the ever-increasing demand for supporter communications content that is distributed in a variety of materials.

Alison Gentleman who manages the initiatives in Madagascar and Ethiopia said; “What really gives the VFTF Officers the edge is their passion for the cause, their local knowledge and the fact that they speak the local language. Straight away, huge barriers are broken down and communities, partners and WaterAid staff are happy to share their stories. What these VFTF Officers have is a knowledge of different worlds. They can relate on a local and global level.

“They understand the communities they visit but they also understand the supporters on the other side of the world. This is a unique perspective and I think that is key to the programme’s success.”

In July 2015, I visited Antananarivo, Madagascar to spend three days with Ernest Randriarimalala in the field to see how his work is being used in campaigns back in the UK and in other overseas offices. Ernest spends approximately two weeks of every month in the field collecting information and imagery, the rest of the time is spent back in the office editing films in FinalCut Pro, uploading images to the data bank, captioning images, ensuring all the meta data is accurate and refining the language on case studies. Managing workloads is dependent on the stories needed by various departments. Sometimes stories are explicitly requested from the UK office and Ernest will ascertain specific needs via email or a Skype call. Other times stories will be collected organically and the case study details will be shared to staff across the world via Yammer, which WaterAid use for internal communications. 

In three years, Ernest has taken nearly 30,000 photos. He estimates that he collects two to three case studies for every trip and between 30 to 60 minutes of video rush footage. These images are used in WaterAid communications all over the world – in posters, websites, adverts, leaflets, newspapers and social media. One piece of footage captured on a GoPro camera has also been used in a TV campaign.  

By having a locally based communications officer, it overcomes many obstacles such as misinterpretation through translation, cultural differences and sensitivities to local political and economic issues.

It does not guarantee more authentic storytelling, but is more likely than the alternative of recruiting western photographers with little to no knowledge of the communities they are documenting. The VFTF programme is about building long term relationships with communities, documenting progress and creating case studies to inform donors that their fundraising efforts are making a big difference to people’s lives. 

Every year each of the VFTF officers is also invited to the UK for training and advocacy work. In June this year, Ernest spent three weeks in England. Part of this time was spent with colleagues in the London Head Office, but he also visited a fundraising ball in Durham organised by WaterAid supporters and attended the Glastonbury Festival where he gave a talk alongside the CEO of Oxfam. At these events he showed images of the toilets and access to clean water that have been installed, and more importantly the people who benefit, as a result of fundraising efforts. When he returns to the field, he is also able to tell beneficiaries about meeting the many people who have organised balls, raffles, cake sales, sponsored runs etc., all to help communities they are unlikely to ever visit nearly 10,000km away. Ernest said, “I’m not a professional public speaker, but people seemed to enjoy my talk as it was from the heart. I just told them what I have experienced with my own eyes. Like many of the beneficiaries of WaterAid’s work, I grew up without access to clean water or a toilet. I was often sick when I was young due to poor sanitation and missed lots of school. I am so happy when I meet all the people who fundraise and sign petitions to help people in my country. It is great to tell them about all the positive work we are doing and how we couldn’t do it without their help.”

The Voices from the Field programme is both innovative and inspirational. It is a relatively simple and cost effective solution to help overcome many of the criticisms of the imagery used in humanitarian communication. I’m not saying it is easy or that the role is without it’s flaws, but I applaud WaterAid for persisting with this initiative and to paraphrase one of their recent campaigns “Making it happen”. I hope that other NGOs around the world will see this programme as a model of good practice and implement their own voices from the field.


Our Solutions to Their Issues?

In a changing, multi-polar world, countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America are playing an increasingly larger role on the global scene. This affects us now and will increasingly do so in the future. Previously we could – paternalistically and at long distance – define the world’s problems and prescribe our solutions for people lacking the possibilities we had. Our solutions to their issues. Separately.

The world is at our doorstep. These days, a new influx from the world into Europe and to Norway is displaying all its challenges, despair, hopes and capacities. This is a shared existence, in which distance is no longer relevant. Some may think this is a short-term phenomenon; however, we are certain that this is a lasting reality. The image of otherness and of others struggling with their issues far away is obsolete.

We need to come to terms with development as a common challenge, shared across countries and continents, based on mutual interests and equity. Together. 

Norway has never been as homogenous or isolated as stated by our national narrative. Even though we may be led to believe that the current situation is extraordinary, in a larger perspective, the situation in Norway is nothing but ordinary. Through time immemorial, we have been interconnected with the outside world politically, culturally, and socially.

"Colonialism, migration, trade – and gradually, tourism, the internet, media and other impulses have shaped our society and the way we think."

The only thing that may be new about today’s changes are perhaps the speed in which they occur.

Through centuries, we have grown accustomed to a reality where we, the West, have been dominating the rest of the world. Increasingly today power, money and influence are spreading geographically to countries, regions and actors that were previously weakened by western imperialism. Every day, decision-making in Africa, Asia and Latin America affects our lives through social processes, economic development and climate change.

Norwegians have a self-image of being the well-doers, for helping people all over the world, preferably to do so on our own, and in our manner. And not to mention; of “helping” people far away in their own home areas! This constitutes part of the Norwegian people’s national identity, and how we understand our own role in the global community. Good-hearted Norwegian missionaries, curious sailors and well-meaning development workers have through decades reported back images from Africa, Asia and Latin-America of deprivation and misery. Our media, art and literature, trade and marketing have reflected the same. Over time perpetuating orientalist, spectacular, alienated perspective of others, and at worst racism as well as stereotypes of countries, people and cultures in “the South” which have little root in reality. Not only do they wrong the majority of the world, but such stereotypical thinking blocks our own culture and growth as a society.

Young people today, no matter where they grow up, face a chaotic, intertwined world in which all possibilities are known, yet hard to access. The opportunities for employment, economic growth and social security that our little country up north can provide us today and in the future, are shaped by events taking place in what we, for lack of a better word, lump into the term “South” or “developing nations”.

"The way the world changes, and the challenges and opportunities we stand in together, forces us to realise that we face a common, shared reality. Not us and them any longer, but rather one, big us."

It demands us to listen emphatically and seriously understand the voices and opinions from the Global South. Because those voices are our most important tool for understanding our times and what to expect of the future.

The voices from the South are numerous and heterogeneous, and we need to make room for them, on their own terms. We need them all over Norway: in debates, in the media, in education and in the many organisations and businesses where people work. These voices will make us better suited to learn and understand our own society, the world and our place in it.

Listening to these voices will enable us to surpass the old divides based on donor-recipient and traditional images of poor and rich, of developed and under-developed. They will compel us to recognize that we are all developing nations and peoples. Ultimately, these voices will empower us to feel, think and act on the basis of mutuality and shared humanity.


By Nita Kapoor
Nita Kapoor is the Director of FK Norway. 



A Short History of Helping Far-Off Peoples

In the past two centuries, as technologies of mass media have advanced, so too has our knowledge of the suffering of distant others. It is through this knowledge that the new ways of generating empathy underpinning the modern humanitarian movement came into being. But the desire to help others is difficult to disconnect from representations of their need.

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