On Message: How development tropes have failed us

South African writer Sisonke Msimang speaking at the 2019 Bond Conference. Photo by: Vicki Couchman / Bond / CC BY-NC

When it comes to development tropes, there is a long history attached to stereotypical depictions of people from the world’s poorest countries. It’s a history that starts with colonization, long before charity or global organizations entered the scene. Even one of the first successful campaigns, the anti-slavery movement of the 19th century, relied on jarring images and messaging to elicit empathy about the inhumanity of slavery.

As modern global development charities and organizations formed, they didn’t do much to update the charity messaging formula. In the 1980s, development communicators spun suffering into advertisements that have now been criticized for simplifying poverty alleviation to low dollar donations from individuals (the “for less than a cup of coffee” ads) or relied on “poverty porn” to drive donations.

In recent years, we’ve seen a shift from negative narratives to positive narratives that play on the desires and aspirations of individuals, highlighting “community mamas” and “hardworking youth.” While it’s a change, this new format seems only to have gotten rid of one part of the problem (see: poverty porn). The positive narrative still offers a limited view of the complexities of poverty, disease, and other development challenges.

At the Bond annual conference last month, author Sisonke Msimang’s keynote remarks challenged conference attendees to come to terms with how we got here. She stated, “The visual stereotypes of my continent, Africa, have existed for centuries. The people sitting in this room didn’t create those stereotypes. But you certainly have a responsibility to think about how the stories you tell today either perpetuate or disrupt these powerful tropes.”

“Investing in storytellers and deemphasizing the key messages of your organizations [and] your storylines means complicating the narrative.”

— Sisonke Msimang, author

She went on to explain what she sees as the core issue of development stories: an inauthentic understanding of storytelling. She illustrated how stories are often collected as “raw material” from the developing world and then shipped to the United Kingdom and other Western headquarters to be processed for Western donors and institutions. “We were the story factory. We were shaping the narrative to suit our own objectives,” she confessed, recalling her own challenges with storytelling while she was the executive director at a major philanthropic foundation.

So how do we fix this broken storytelling approach?

Msimang offered some solutions that start with asking ourselves questions. She asks us to consider how stories are made and who we think the stories are intended to influence. With that, she says we might find some uncomfortable truths. For some organizations, it might mean restructuring key messaging or new storytellers altogether.

“Investing in storytellers and deemphasizing the key messages of your organizations [and] your storylines means complicating the narrative,” she said.  

That’s not an easy pill to swallow as development communicators. In a world where authentic stories are more important than ever, it's time to reexamine what role development tropes — even the positive ones — still play in the stories we tell about development. And this especially if we want to engage a generation of young people set to be more inclusive and ethnically diverse than previous generations.

We need to create space for new storytellers. We need to create space for stories that don’t necessarily have endings. We need to tell stories that kick start conversations about long-term solutions.

So what does this mean for your organization? How will you create space for more authentic and multidimensional stories?

About the author

  • Carine Umuhumuza

    Carine Umuhumuza is a former associate director of communications at Devex, where she wrote about the latest trends, tips, and insights on media and communications for the global development community. Previously, Carine led digital initiatives at Devex for development agencies, major corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises.