The voiceless non-Westerners

Watching the news today about refugees in Kyrgyzstan on Danish television, I saw not one of the refugees, but a Western aid worker, a psychologist from Doctors Without Borders, interviewed. Nothing out of the ordinary. But it made me wonder whether the Western media as a general rule believes that non-Westerners are incapable of speaking for themselves, that they need an “enlightened”, educated Westerner to interpret their situation for them and for the Western viewers and readers. This is the problem, really. We are so used to watching non-Westerners represented in this way that we subconsciously come to accept the fact that they are silent, helpless victims that need our help and guidance. It is not only the media that refuses to give a voice to the voiceless, however. Even many of the NGOs that are supposed to be “on the side” of the refugees and famished people of the world tend to, perhaps inadvertently, portray the recipients of aid as objects of development that are helpless without our charity. Perhaps they believe that pictures of starving children will get the largest donations in the short term, but in the long run the people who support these campaigns with donations will probably end up resenting having to continuously help people who are apparently not doing anything to improve their situation.

The problem with this tendency is threefold: Firstly, it helps perpetuate a general view of people in Africa and in other developing countries as objects of a development that we must define. Secondly, the dependency of those in developing countries consequently ends up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy by attracting the wrong type of development and development NGO’s, namely those who promote dependence and top-down development. And thirdly, it fails to address some of the reasons for the predicament of people in developing countries that the West can change, such as issues of trade, debt and the corruption of large Western companies. Not addressing these issues tends to portray the poverty of these people as unavoidable or at least as being their own fault.

What we should by showing on our TV-screens and in our development-NGO campaigns is a positive image of a development in partnership, of people who are equal participants in this process, and who are self-reliant and determined – people who need our help not our paternalism. There are many such people in the developing world. Unfortunately, they are seldom interviewed by our reporters or used in NGO campaigns.

Read more on the subject:

Somalia’s unholy alliance: Media, donors and aid agencies, Pambazuka News

One Response to The voiceless non-Westerners

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