Changing the Narrative Around International Development

19 February 2021


Media and development are inextricably linked. Media – including conventional forms like print and television, as well as social media – provide an essential platform whereby organisations and individuals can draw attention to some of the most pressing global issues, as well as to the everyday lives of people around the world. For many organisations, it also provides a means to attract donations and raise money for their various projects.

However, there is also a much darker side whereby media can be responsible for perpetuating unproductive stereotypes which can often lead to inaction in the face of problems. It is therefore interesting to consider how media representations of international development influence public perception on development issues, and the extent to which such representation can perpetuate stereotypes about the so-called “developing” world.

Extensive research has been conducted on how exactly negative imagery and messaging can impact the public’s feelings towards global development. In 2014, a group of organisations came together to create The Narrative Project, dedicated to asking the question: can the public conversation be changed to foster a more positive understanding of global development issues[1]? This research aimed to establish how various themes – including independence, shared values and partnership – could be utilised within media messaging to change attitudes and motivate audiences to take action to support development.

A key finding of this particular study was that messaging which leads with negative concepts and words are generally less successful in fostering positive public engagement with development. The study found that messages that start by describing ‘problems’ are less convincing than those which address why people should support development, by appealing to more positive messaging and themes such as independence, shared values, partnership and progress. Referencing progress in particular can be important in challenging perceptions among sceptics that aid and development are a waste of money or do not make much difference to the lives of recipients. Emphasising the progress that has been made demonstrates that development works and can have a genuinely positive impact, and that the problems it seeks to address are indeed solvable.

In addition to words and messaging, the images chosen by organisations have an important impact in influencing public opinion around international development. The Narrative Project found that while images that evoke pity create emotional reactions in some people, they do not advance the idea that people in developing countries are active partners in their development. This links to one of the study’s key recommendations, which was that organisations which have a role in representing issues around international development to the general public – and this could apply to media practitioners as well as to charitable organisations – should not aim to evoke pity by characterising people in developing countries as helpless victims. Instead, productive campaigns should focus on shared values and agency to challenge these stereotypical characterisations.

Whilst The Narrative Project is intended as a user guide for NGOs and charitable organisations to improve their communications strategies to foster a more positive conversation around international development, the findings of the study link to the more general theme of the reductive stereotypes many people hold about recipients of development aid and assistance.

Several years ago, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the dangers of telling a single story[2]. She notes that narratives around Africa, particularly those circulated within the Western world, often focus on a single narrative of the continent as being a place of underdevelopment and poverty. This act of reduction, whereby complex human beings, countries and situations are reduced to a single story, can have problematic repercussions. For example, when “Africans” are treated solely as a pitiable poor who are in need of charity, this is the only lens through which they are understood: it neglects the diversity and multiplicity of people and experiences in individual countries across the continent, and most problematically, this particular single story removes any sense of agency. Such single stories also emphasise differences rather than similarities, which can foster an understanding of international development which maintains a “them and us” rhetoric.

Adichie’s argument raises important points about the dominant narrative of international development and how it can perpetuate false stereotypes. One fairly well-known example of how such narratives dominate UK media can be found in the ongoing debate around the Comic Relief franchise and its popular fundraising initiatives Sport Relief and Red Nose Day. Back in 2019, many were captured by the public debate where Labour MP David Lammy criticised TV presenter Stacey Dooley for posting pictures posing with a Ugandan child whilst visiting Uganda for one of Comic Relief’s appeals[3]. This debate was widely covered, however Lammy had argued for challenging Comic Relief’s representation of Africa long before he held Dooley to account for her problematic posting. In 2018, he drew attention to how Comic Relief has “tattooed images of poverty in Africa” onto people’s minds, reducing over a billion people to just one prevailing image of extreme poverty and deprivation[4]. This formula is both tired and hugely patronising and, Lammy argued, should be replaced with appeals that encourage the UK public to understand Africans as equals to be respected, not as victims to be pitied. He argued that rather than using celebrities to act as tour guides to Africa, the Comic Relief franchise should instead give Africans the platform to talk about their continent and the problems that they have experienced themselves.

Fast forward 2 years, and, towards the end of 2020, Comic Relief finally announced that they would no longer be sending celebrities on trips to Africa as a way of attracting donations and committed instead to using local filmmakers from across the continent to produce its fundraising appeals[5]. Although this step was well overdue, the optimists among us might perceive it as a sign of hope that organisations are finally turning a new page in committing to challenge reductive single stories like those that Adichie and Lammy highlight. What’s more, initiatives such as The Narrative Project arguably represent another hint of optimism, by setting out in simple and actionable steps how charitable organisations can adapt their messaging to foster a more positive, solutions-focused approach to international development which treats beneficiaries as active partners in their own development. Both of these examples represent a hopeful step in the right direction towards conveying the multiplicity and diversity of the African continent, rather than focusing on reductive stereotypes.

There is, of course, the possibility that such steps are simply “hot air”, empty talk which carries little substance. With Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day taking place next month, the success and impact of their new commitment to foregrounding African voices remains to be seen. However, recent trends in increased accountability, combined with genuine commitment from charities and NGOs to use more positive, solutions-focused messaging could spark more productive conversations about international development which convey a diversity of lived experiences rather than focusing solely on problems and reductive stereotypes.

By Amelia Twitchen








Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.

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