Depicting Development

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Over the break I finally managed to read The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund (new window). Having read many books about development, from technical economic text books to memoirs, the honesty in her book resonated with me. In thinking about gnovis, and how I want to use this platform this coming semester, I want to focus more on what I am studying here at CCT, economic development from the dual perspective of economics and cultural studies. This area of interest started while I was an undergraduate where I studied not only current development policy, but the history of how perceptions of “the other” had contributed to the perceived necessity of development.

Popular rhetoric focuses development practices on simple monetary charity donations, with grandiose promises of saving lives with pennies. Over break, it seemed every time I watched a television show, the most recent UNICEF commercial featuring Alyssa Milano played at least once.

The commercial is a good case study of many of the issues I see in development practice today. It is clearly highlighting a top-down system of monetary donations. The belief is that money provided by the “first world” to the “third world” will solve problems of poverty, hunger, health, shelter, and education. What is missing are the concepts of understanding culture, fostering a dialogue, and representations- the argument from UNICEF has been positioned as an US vs The Other dichotomy. In No Sense of Place, Meyrowitz notes that “television ‘removes’ viewers from their physical locales and offers them alternate views of other people and the physical environment” (144). Through the existence of television, we are able to visualize the third world- but in the case are not able to interact or communicate. Set to depressing music, reminiscent of a Humane Society ad, the only other sound is of Ms. Milano pleading with us, her voice just about to break, that our monies will make a difference. The visuals are meant to shock us- forlorn boys washing in dirty water, no shoes, no parents, and most importantly no voice. The most compelling thing to me about the commercial was the lack of voice given to these two African boys, they were literally silent and without voice through the entire minute and a half.

A critique of development work is that it focuses on the “culture of poverty”, and enacts programs that are misguided culturally. What Novogratz, among many scholars, notes is the necessity for cultural understanding when deciding on how to pick what development projects to invest in, and when providing aid. This semester I am taking Technology, Culture, and Development with Prof. Singh (new window), and one of the questions we will be tackling is how to change the flow of information and representations from the third to first world. Novogratz notes that when she first went to Africa she was surprised by the smiles that were present. When I traveled to Honduras for a week long trip to a rural community, not a single one of my pictures I came back with was of a sad, dirty, weeping child. The pictures I have show children smiling- enthralled with seeing a camera- with seeing themselves on camera. This is NOT to say that poverty, inequality and hunger are not the most serious of issues- this is not meant to trivialize experiences – what I am interested in is why the US development culture decides on reproducing certain images.

How are these images produced and transmitted from the third world to the first? Where is the voice of those in third world? When will there true images be represented? If people in the US see a happy child intently playing with the camera that someone from the aid organization has brought to their country to document their plight, it will not elicit the same response (read: donations) to the organization. Depicting development is a struggle, but we must always remain cognizant of culture and relational representations.