Power, Racism and Communications Tactics.

How the images NGOs use can prevent actual international development.

Ab Brightman
37 min readSep 9, 2019

With the recent #CharitySoWhite campaign revealing a lot of horrible and racist crap people of colour in the social good sector experience, I was reflecting on my own undergrad dissertation (from a good few years ago now) which taught me a lot about how exactly this ‘othering’ and colonial aspect of racism in this country creeps into ‘social good’ work.

Of course, its actual title was rather more wordy:

‘Representations of Citizens in Developing Nations Used in INGO Communications Reinforce the Prevailing Discourses Regarding Global Power Relations Between the North and South.’

My particular work looked at it in the context of international development and definitely the moral issues it raised around global power and racism is a reason I didn’t head down that career path.

I definitely don’t think its the greatest academic writing (c’mon, it ended up being written in a three day blinder) but lot of the references I used are extremely thought provoking so I wanted to share — especially for those o of us working on comms and campaigns with an international reach. All critique (such as not well addressing the link between racism and othering based on nations but of skin colour in Western countries too) is probably true and fair, I have left it unchanged from what I wrote at 22.

‘Over the decades, with the best intentions in the world, their relentless depiction of Africa as one single, hopeless basket-case has harmed the long-term development prospects of the whole continent even as it has boosted donations.

After all, while many people would happily donate money to a basket-case, few will think it prudent to invest in a basket-case, buy products or services produced in a basket-case, go on holiday to a basket-case, or hire somebody born and raised in a basket-case.’ (Anholt, 2010)


This thesis asks if and how the images used in public communications by development INGOs representing citizens of the Global South reproduce and contribute to the reinforcement of the damaging discourse of superiority of the Global North over the South. It finds that the three methods of image representation used by INGOs; deliberate positivism, negative ‘shock effect’ and post-humanitarian communication, all interact with the discourses of the South being a grateful receiver of aid from generous Western benefactors, the South being too infantile to manage its own well being, and the South being a prop from which the North can create personal narratives of philanthropy from, are all in operation, though interact differently with the discourse through each combination of mediacy and representation. To assess these interactions, colonial and neocolonial discourse writers, a philosophy of violence and modern media commentators, are drawn together to produce a rounded and realistic and expansive analysis, and a rare consolidation of the contemporary thinking on such a powerful, relevant topic.


  1. Introduction
  2. Africa is not a Country: How Images Construct the Global South and Why a Northern Audience Matters
  3. A Framework of Violence the Global South Must Negotiate
  4. Pornography of Poverty: Strategies of INGO Communications
  • Characteristics of ‘Shock Effect’ Deliberately Negative Representations
  • How Negative Representations Reinforce the Discourses
  • Deliberately Positive Representations
  • Why Positive Representations Reproduce Negative Discourses

5. Post-Humanitarian Communication — the Alternative?

6. Concluding Reflections

7. Bibliography


A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the old adage claims. Certainly in the standard communications practices of development INGOs, this is the prevailing belief. Every day, thousands of images are distributed by INGOS; posted online, printed onto posters and advertising spaces, and mailing out to existing and potential supporters. Their common purpose is to urge citizens to take action against the problems which they aim to bring to our attention, be that through donating money, volunteering, signing a petition or sharing the message further. The function of every image they use, be it overlaid with text or more graphics, is to communicate to their audience that they are in a position to enable these INGOs to help alleviate the distant suffering of others.

However, the moral intentions behind this aim, and those who then respond to it, are not the focus of this critical exploration. Instead, the focus will be on how the images used represent citizens in developing nations (the distant, suffering others) by international development charities and organisations located in the Global North, reinforces and reproduces the prevailing discourses regarding power relations between the Global North and the Global South. Principly this is one of huge inequality between the two; one of domination and condescension, building on an expansive history of colonialism and imperialist practices. Ultimately this continued global power inequality is preventing true development. It is not implied that these international development INGOs have any intention of complicity in these damaging discourses already in motion, but the study of how their image choices impact on this inequality is an incredibly overlooked area of study — with potentially huge ramifications.

The Relevancy of this Thesis

Considering what a sizeable part of the public and daily practices of development INGOs the purposeful representations of their development partners located elsewhere in the world is, there is an enormous lack of research which systematically examines the relationship between these images of representation placed into the public sphere and the wider discourse regarding the Global power inequalities and systemic violence of the racism and limiting beliefs their development partners have to negotiate their lives in as a consequence (Smith and Yanacopulos, 2004). Of what little research there is, there is then a lack of consolidations of it to help piece together an understanding of the true landscape in which development communications is situated in and what the magnitude is of the effect it has on the overall global political economy of the partner nations in the Global South. That is why this thesis sits on the cusp of existing research, and new conclusions, drawing on a broader range of thinkers across disciplines to explore a topic of huge significance to the daily and unquestioned practices of INGOs.

Structure of the Research

This dissertation will evaluate how the most prevalent humanitarian communications strategies, concerning image use, fail to challenge the existing discourse of global power inequality, situating them in the framework of symbolic and systemic violence (Žižek, 2008), colonialist representations of the Global South and the wider modern media. Both the image strategies of negative images and deliberate positivism will be analysed using these illuminative paradigms, and then an alternative strategy of representation will be offered and then critiqued in the same manner.

It is not only important to seek to understand the complex ways INGO images interact with individual citizens to contribute to the global political economy for aligning both the development aims and undermining practices of such INGOs, but for a deeper consideration of how prevalently images of others enable the discursive practice of global power inequality.

Africa is not a Country: How Images Construct the Global South and Why a Northern Audience Matters

If a group of citizens from the Global North were asked to describe everything they associate with the word ‘Africa’, it is highly likely that they would paint a verbal picture of poverty, malnourished black children, slums, famine, arid landscapes, tribes and political corruption (Birrel, 2012). This is clearly far from a fair representation of the entire continent, yet it is hardly surprising when images depicting the scenes described above form by far the majority of the images we are exposed to of a diverse continent. The example using Africa here is just indicative of the wider problem that typically regarded ‘Third World’ territories have placed on them by their own narrative being subverted by ‘Western’ media forms.

A survey of British adults found that almost three out of four (74%) believed that countries of the Global South depend on the money and on the knowledge of the West in order to progress (VSO, 2001). The further qualitative findings showed that these adults had a strong sense of national and racial superiority, viewing citizens and nations in the developing world as grateful and dependent receivers of British aid (VSO, 2001). This thesis argues that attitudes such as this have resulted from the circulation of discourses in public media, which reinforces and maintains a Western hegemony of unequal power relations with the Global South.

Applying a global political economy approach is to analyse how the ideological content of the media is controlled by those with power, in order to maintain a discourse; a system of values and beliefs which serve an elite interest (Shoemaker and Reese, 1996, p.222). A discourse is the way a concept is represented and used through semiosis, such as images (Fairclough, 1995). In the context of global power relations, they play a key role in reflecting and shaping social order, which then translates into individuals’ interactions with society, and those outside it. The vicious, colonial past of many countries of the Global North, in laying claim to the South, are broadly documented as part of history. However, many of the discourses which legitimised the acting out of such atrocities are still somewhat in circulation today, either through the media or practices of the Global North’s Governments and citizens.

Originally creating a narrative of these citizens and states as infantile and lacking in their own agency was an essential element of creating the Third World difference (Mohanty, 1988). Ultimately the central cultural hegemony binding such discourses is the fact that European (Western) identity is a superior one to all European cultures and peoples (Said, 1978). This helped to construct an overarching hegemony, which today is reproduced through Western interventions and domineering foreign aid policies; one which goes to justify continued interference on the basis of ‘their need’ and ‘our responsibility’. This frames it as a moral duty, almost, to exercise continued control, rather than as a violation to regard another sovereign state (and its peoples) as infantile. Complementary discourses seek to frame the Global South as homogenous in their suffering and lack of civilisation, and that there is a hyper-feminised identity on such states too, giving rise to the construction of American manhood (Doty, 1996) to allow the USA to project itself as a strong world leader, and convey that the states of the Global South are weak and open to invasion, like women. This thesis will demonstrate how these discourses are reinforced through the representations of ‘Third World’ citizens used in development INGO’s communications today, and how discourses which challenge Western supremacy in the development sector, such as the role of colonialism and Western export and agriculture practices, in causing and maintaining poverty in the South, remain conveniently outside of the framework (Pieterse, 1995).

The audience of the Global North is relevant to the circulation of discourses which subordinate the Global South’s political economy in comparison to that of the Global North’s because their acceptance of it directly contributes to the countries’s’ subordinate positions in society. With that comes inferior international respect and influence, and an inability to attract development opportunities (Scott, 2014), such as investment in their businesses (Hoffman, 2005). Therefore discourses, though interpreted by individuals and reproduced in singular incidences and consumed by audiences in the Global North, have real global effects, and the representations of developing nation’s citizens in INGO images contributes to the subjective violence of global power inequality through the discourses it replicates to Northern audiences. As such it is of immediate relevance to expand upon exactly what is conveyed by symbolic and systemic violence and how it applies to these representations, through an inquiry in Žižek’s violence political philosophy.

A Framework of Violence the Global South Must Negotiate

Central to any discussion of the damage of misrepresentations of peoples is a thorough examination of the concept of violence, as conveyed by the political philosopher Žižek. Žižek’s conception of underlying violence is one that considers a society as a whole often oblivious to it, as we are distracted from taking this step to consciously process the violent background by more obvious signals of violence impressed upon us, such as riot clashes and terrorism. These obvious signals of violence are what Žižek calls ‘subjective violence’; violence which is performed by a clearly identifiable agent. However the form of violence this thesis argues that the misrepresentative INGO images are complicit in is what he terms ‘objective violence’. This type of violence is at any moment invisible yet sustains the background levels of violence which give rise to subjective outbursts, but which society has come to accept as the ‘zero ­level’ (Žižek, 2009, p.1­2).

Within this idea of subjective violence though, Žižek is able to further segment it into symbolic violence and systemic violence. Symbolic violence is the violence which is embodied in language. This can be both hate speech but also a background of violence more ingrained in everyday language use, reflecting hierarchies already confirmed in the structure of social power in societies. With the thinking of critical discourse analysis in mind, language here can be understood to also include individual images, and ultimately has the power to create what we operate under as ‘reality’. Systemic violence then, is defined by Žižek as the violence inherent in systems, which sustains the power relations of dominance and exploitation (Žižek, 2009, p.2). He argues that systemic violence is not an unexpected element, as it is the catastrophic consequence of a smooth functioning political or economic system. In this case, the global political economy. Evidently each problematic image from an INGO can be viewed as an act of symbolic violence if it reinforces damaging discourses about those it aims to represent, which then contributes to the overall picture of systemic violence experienced by those of the group affected.

Highlighting an example of a similar area, Žižek argues that specific humanitarian cases are only visible in the media as a result of a complex struggle between the event’s happening in real terms, and its ability to reinforce an existing systemic violence. For instance, Žižek puts across the not-uncommon notion that this may be because some lives are regarded as worth more than the lives of others. This provides an analysis which engages with a variety of complex interplaying factors, rather than simply the violence of social power hierarchies, and dominant hegemony.

Žižek’s ultimate argument is also that capitalism is the fundamental systemic violence in society, as the violence which creates and sustains is is not attributable to any agent or any supposed ‘evil’ intentions, so is therefore anonymous but enables a vast number of other systemic violences to exist, through a prevailing discourse of inequality. Without beginning a thorough analysis of communism (as Žižek is a communist) and the various economic and societal models it does or does not accurately propose, this thesis presumes the world order is still a predominantly capitalist system without an impending revolution to disrupt that fact, and as such presumes economic investment from and to businesses, large or small, are a necessary factor in and indicator of development.

Aside from the pure definitional conceptions of symbolic and systemic violence however, another important concept from Žižek is how we are distracted from understanding and challenging these objective violences by the constant onslaught of subjective violence we are subjected to; not in the sense that we personally are constantly under physical threat, but are surrounded by a media and public discourse which has what Žižek terms, ‘a fascination’ with instances of immediate outbursts of subjective violence. He argues that this creates a model of public thinking which is distracted by outrage, fear, disgust and again perverse fascination at such images. This is what is termed (in his mind at least) as the left-liberal humanitarian discourse on violence. How this directly relates to development INGO’s communication practices is that Žižek argues that their framing of images and overlying messaging of now not being the time to reflect on the distant suffering of others, but now being the time to act, provide a sense of false urgency and a source of hypocritical moral outrage. Which of course fits the short-term aims of development INGOs (a need to raise money or awareness) and commercial news-cycles (especially in a news landscape which is moving at a faster turnover pace than ever, not least thanks to the prevalence of digital media and 24 hour rolling news channels), but, he asserts, these demands seek to focus our attention on such (established) pressing concerns, and in doing so distract us from reflecting upon (and ultimately addressing) what the real underlying background violence and conflict is in a broad social situation. To Žižek then, INGO communications practices not only reinforce an objective background violence, but detract our attention from investigating it.

Pornography of Poverty: Strategies of INGO Communications

In order to be able to conduct an analysis of how the representations of citizens from developing nations impact on global power relations using the themes and frames argued and explored above, it is necessary to clarify what exactly is understood as categories of representations within existing NGO communications conventions, so that each may be analysed to expose its individual effects reinforcing or reproducing the global power inequality between the North and the South. Ultimately no way of representing the suffering of distant others in order to inspire action from an audience far far away from their problems seems to be fair to the moral claim of suffering (Chouliaraki, 2010), but differing strategies produce different interactions and levels of complicity with the existing global power discourses.

Rather than immediately ranking them as the best to the worst ways to represent developing nation’s citizens and represent the distant suffering of others, Scott argues that NGO image strategies of representation are better assessed and understood as differing ways to use mediation to elicit a response from audiences in the Global North (Scott, 2014). Mediation is defined as the ‘dialectical and institutionally and technology driven phenomenon,’ (Silverstone, 2006, p.189) involving ‘overcoming distance in communication,’ and ‘passing through the medium,’ (Tomlinson, 1999, p.155). The two ends of the spectrum of mediation are immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy is a trend in image representation which aims remove awareness of the presence of the medium from the audience, to create a viewing experience that feels as if they are in the presence of those being represented (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). Hypermediacy is of course the opposite, a trend of image representation which intentionally reminds the viewer that they are experiencing the representation through a medium (Bolter and Grusin, 2000). This can be achieved with overlying text, other graphics or a voice-over, which means the experience of distance between the audience and those represented is constantly reinforced.

Absolutely this presents a useful framework of differentiating between the strategies in place, because media can bring distant Southern suffering closer to Northern audiences, whilst the presence of the medium interferes with the representations of this process. However, though Scott (2014) argues that all humanitarian techniques are different attempts to overcome distance between audiences through combinations of immediacy and hypermediacy, it is clear that in using a hypermediacy technique, there is a distance being sought in the imagery for audiences to be conscious of. Whether this leads to positive or negative effects on the global power divide will be extrapolated upon in the analysis below, but both immediacy and hypermediacy are simply problematic compromises in response to the difficulty in navigating the inherent global and INGO tensions. These include neo-colonialism and the shaping of ‘Third World’ identities, but also more Northern INGO communications issues, such as the struggle of making it possible to take effective action against the distant suffering of others, the necessary commercial brand and fundraising motivations of INGO appeals, and the need to avoid reproducing the hierarchies of human life experienced off the screen or print (Scott, 2014).

Moving inside the mediation spectrum of immediacy and hypermediacy though, there are two practices of immediacy image representation which dominate the ways INGOs in the North communicate with their audiences about citizens in the South (Scott, 2014 and Chouliaraki, 2010). These two categories are broadly; shock effect negative images, and in response to the problems raised by those, the more contemporary practice of deliberately positive images. A full analysis of a third way, post-humanitarian communication, will be made in the final section of this thesis, as it is offered as an alternative to the traditional binary of deliberately positive and then intentionally shockingly negative images, as these initially pose the largest problem to the reinforcement of global power relations in their representation of Southern citizens.

Characteristics of ‘Shock Effect’ Deliberately Negative Representations

The first INGO communication type which will be presented is that which uses deliberately negative imagery of a citizen of a developing nation; or that which Benthall rather disparagingly terms a ‘shock effect’ appeal (Benthall, 1993). This negative imagery use may well be the most prevalent INGO representation strategy too. An analysis of NGO newspaper adverts in the UK showed that these shock effect campaigns still ‘form a substantial proportion of INGO’s messages today’ (Dogra, 2012). These appeals appear to be in direct contrast with that of the later deliberately positive image use in communications materials, which were a response to the commonly perceived problems raised in the use of shock effect negative imagery. However, as will be demonstrated, academic thought can show that they may well be two sides of the same problematic coin (Scott, 2014).

Shock effect or deliberately negative campaign trends are very simple to recognise. They use immediacy with a goal is to evoke the feelings of guilt and pity in the viewing Western audience, using portrayals of extreme suffering, often appearing to be poverty-based, rather than abused by an actor (Cameron and Haanstra, 2008). This poverty-based theme means that they are often deployed in campaigns which are associated with humanitarian crises; such as the 2011 East Africa famine and Syrian refugee crisis (Scott, 2012). Though these images appear in print media, small poster adverts, as TV advert spots, and videos and posts online, perhaps the largest broadcast platform for them, at least in British culture, is the biennial Comic Relief TV event, where, alongside comedians and celebrities taking part in challenges or appearing on well-know TV shows as a ‘one off’, short films of the suffering distant others are beamed out across the nation.

The exact visual trends of these images is stark. Frequently the faces and bodies of the suffering are shown close-up, portrayed as semi-naked ‘ethnic’ bodies. Often they are malnourished, crying or more likely with just a hollow expression, and sometimes only their eyes or a hand are shown. Where there is a backdrop given it is frequently an arid plain, stereotypical village or a slum. The fact that the bodies of these citizens are almost fetishised in the desperate portrayal of their suffering have given rise to the notion that they are the ‘pornography of poverty’ (Oliver, 2006), further claiming that they are sensationalist. Clearly these images, by using situations which are by and large are not the experiences or perception of the Northern audience’s countries, are not trying to elicit a response of shared human experience and solidarity from their audiences. In fact, it is argued for by Höijer that these negative imagery appeals rely on the construction of sufferers as the ‘ideal victims’ (Höijer, 2004). She claims that what constitutes an ‘ideal victim’ depends on how they are shown to be consistent with the existing Global discourses of compassion — which designate some ‘victims’ as more worthy than others of representation and of inspiring our help (Höijer, 2004). As an aside, by Global discourses of compassion (indeed, the title of her work) it is clear that actually what is intended to be conveyed is the current Global North’s discourses of compassion regarding those perceived to be less fortunate than themselves, rather than a discourse of compassion which is generated and circulated organically from all Global regions. So the naming of this Northern phenomenon as a Global discourse of compassion is actually a demonstration in itself of how the North impresses its discourses upon the South more broadly from that of purely suffering and compassion.

However, despite that one critique, Höijer’s line of reasoning is very important for exposing why shock effect negative imagery not only generates success for the INGOs who use it (in the sense of achieving its short-term fundraising and awareness raising objectives) but contributes to these images reinforcing the Global power inequality discourse between the Northern audiences and Southern citizens who must negotiate them. She argues that despite the fact that the humanitarian organisations themselves may believe that no victim of suffering is any more worthy than another in their actual programme operations, but their choice of image itself needs to fit the Northern victim narrative at the time of its dissemination.

Therefore to be their most effective, victims should be understood to be both innocent and helpless, alongside fitting the set discourse. She draws on Herman and Chomsky’s research to show that that citizens who are shown suffering in what are seen to be the enemy states at the time of dissemination, are worthy victims (Herman and Chomsky, 1988), and those who are shown as equal or greater victims of a civil war or the state in their own countries, are considered unworthy. This hierarchy of human life is reflected also in Žižek, as a direct result of the systemic violence forced upon a group (Žižek, 2008). Neither Žižek nor Höijer offers a mechanism to explain why exactly this is, presumably the fact that it ties in with the political intentions of demonisation or intervention set by the Northern state(s) in the media is enough, and that through a purely civil war or abuse by their own state’s actor victims are without Western military involvement and therefore media attention for any potential interventions or agenda-setting, as well as the fact the victims are potentially implied to be ‘part of’ the war or civil tensions which has resulted in their suffering.

This builds on the notion that if victims can be thought to be even partly responsible for their suffering they then generate no pity, and therefore disqualify themselves from being candidates for our compassion (Scott, 2014). This explains the focus on children in imagery, as they convey innocence, and often appear emaciated or malnourished too. (Moeller, 1999). She goes further too, to argue that because children and women are usually perceived as helpless in a violent situation they are more suitable for representation as ideal victims than non-elderly men who are also suffering in the same situation.

Yet why is framing an ideal victim important to the relative success of a citizen’ representation in a development NGO’s interest? Because the aim of using these images in a communications way is not to elicit a rational response from the audience. It is to generate the feelings of pity — and then guilt at the innocent suffering of distant others (Scott, 2014). Guilt is then the driver for the actions that the INGO truly wants, and needs, from its audience; making a donation to it, or taking an action in its favour in another kind of way. Pity is immediately an understandable reaction from seeing the blatant suffering of others, but guilt is a more complex emotion to evoke.

Chouliaraki claims that this stems from the ‘logic of complicity’ (Chouliaraki, 2010). The logic of complicity is the feeling that, through our failure to act despite now being a witness to suffering, we are now complicit in the distant suffering of others. Even if we are not made aware of the real causes of the victim’s suffering, we are the cause of suffering too, because a refusal to now act upon seeing it allows it to persist anyway. Therefore a Western viewer is now causally involved (Haskell, 1985). If we do not act we risk experiencing a banal but sustained shame (Chouliaraki, 2010) so the INGO’s who use this technique stake their need on a hope that the guilt will compel their audience to then take action. And, Cohen argues, the simpler the action, the guiltier we feel for not taking it (Cohen, 2001). Attempting to provide true complexities of reasons why a reality of suffering exists is a demonstrated belief of INGOs in the practices through these representations that providing causes can give alibis for inaction; by making audiences feel their contributions may not directly improve the situation.

How Negative Representations Reinforce the Discourses

Folk psychology alone can suggest that portraying these people in such powerless, fetishised negative manners does not have a beneficial effect on their dignity or national discourse. However Cohen argues that the INGOs participation in such practices may be viewed as a ‘pragmatic amorality’ (Cohen, 2001). There is a small amount of research which suggests that using images of starving children raises far more money that using positive imagery, or not representing them at all. Though the research is sorely lacking to prove this link, Cohen highlights a study of Amnesty International conducted by AmB in 1993 whereby they included a mailout of images of victims of torture and human rights abuses in the Global South, alongside their usual letter asking for donations, which was sent alone to another group of supporters of a similar demographic, as a control. This was the first time either group had been contacted by Amnesty, yet they discovered that the donations gained from the group who received the images alongside the letter were almost one and a half times higher, with a response rate increase of 1% to 4% overall (where 2% is considered the break-even level) than those who gave without the images alongside the standard letter ask (Cohen, 2001). Limited as this study is, it does give weight to the conventional wisdom of INGO fundraisers that these images of negative representation allow them to raise vastly more vital funds for development work itself. Yet, employing Žižek’s call to avoid letting the distractions of constant subjective acts of violence convince us that acting for immediate short-term gain is the best, or the only, option (Žižek, 2008), in order to have a broader analysis of the objective violence of damaging global discourses which the practice of negative representation does contribute to, justifying the neglect of long-term barriers to development for short-term projects enables a damaging discourse to continue circulation, and potentially prevent absolute development.

Thus beginning an analysis where the characteristics of shock effect negative representations concluded leads to an examination of the logic of complicity. This is an important consideration in understanding how these images of representation are related to reinforcing a global power inequality between the North and the South on an emotional level, as well as suggestive visual level. Chouliaraki claims that this complicity touches upon the hang-over of the colonial past of the Global North and, with it, the part they played in systematically disenfranchising distant others and their suffering (indeed, causing some of it), through imperial rule. Therefore, she argues, there exists now a deep feeling of historical complicity that gathers in the consciousness of Westerners as a sentiment of collective guilt (Chouliaraki, 2010). Even without beginning a deeper discourse analysis of the content of the images and representations themselves, it is immediately obvious that pumping such condescending feelings of pity, guilt and shame into the sphere of society associated with such ‘Third World’ citizens does little to equalise power relations between those they suggest to depict and those they aim to motivate. This steadfast confidence in Enlightenment faith in knowledge (that if only people knew about suffering, they would surely act) that INGOs demonstrate in their use of the logic of complicity is similarly damaging because the transubstantiation of the imagery of a starving ‘ethnic’ child into standing for all social injustice removed from the global social context it rests in cannot be assumed (Cohen, 2001).

The almost exclusive use of women and children in negative ‘shock effect’ imagery is also problematic. With the aim of inspiring guilty, pity and donations children are extensively represented as they obviously evoke maternal and paternal instincts in audiences to protect them, because they are developmentally weaker than adults. However, women are obviously perceived as weaker and therefore more ideal victims due to the long-standing almost universal discourses constructing femininity as subordinate to masculinity both in value and in strength and ability (Höijer, 2004). Depicting citizens and states of the Global South as infantile and lacking in their own agency was an essential element of creating the ‘Third World difference’ (Mohanty, 1988). The use of predominantly children in INGO images also reinforces the narratives drawn in both parent-child comparisons of Western countries foreign policy and aid relations towards the South. Iconography of children reproduces colonial narratives of the Global South; those of vulnerability and dependency, and a lack of civility or ability enough to manage their own sovereign affairs (Jahoda, 1999), compared to the identity constructed of developed Northern countries; ones who are stronger, wealthier, dominant and civilised enough to be able to protect those weaker in the world (Manzo, 2008).

The imagery of women then used throughout shock effect representations reinforce the discourse of gendered constructions of the ‘Third World’ in order to justify interventions, and construct Western nations, though particularly the united States of America, as possessing the strength associated with masculinity in the international arena (Doty, 1996). This thesis will accept without debate that women are no less strong or capable than men, yet have been subjected to outbursts of subjective violence, and live under a systemic violence based on a discourse which has constructed them so. As such, the choice to represent a woman rather than a man as the face of the ‘Third World’ in INGO’s communication for development marks a strategic decision to reinforce such a negative discourse regarding women’s inferiority to men, and as such, apply this discourse of inequality to developing nations by association. Mohanty argues that in usual development contexts, women are unilaterally portrayed as the victims of men (aka those stronger than themselves), and are defined in terms of their object status; how women are or are not affected by others and systems in place (Mohanty, 1988). Therefore, these connotations which have been ingrained in the subjective violence onto women’s bodies throughout history and contemporary society in the West, are brought with them when icons of them are used in such a way that conveys a representation of all sufferers in the Global South.

The set narrative then, is that helpless victims in the global South can only be saved by these Western INGOs. Stories of suffering have been allowed to become stories of successful humanitarian interventions. Northern supremacy is thus also reinforced through the idea that generous donors in the Global North are the primary source of solutions for the problems in the Global South (Cameron and Haanstra, 2008). Even the very fact of viewing creates a divide between the Global North as the audience, and the Global South as the suffering (as shock effect campaigns are still mediated despite their immediacy. This reinforces a negative hierarchy of human life between those in front of the screens or the printed advert, and those suffering on them (Chouliaraki, 2006). The safe are able to watch the suffering as spectatorship, and the audience also has the power to turn away from images of the distant suffering of others, but they cannot escape their suffering realities (Baudrillard, 1994).

The Global North’s schema of what the Global South is, compared to their own ‘safe’ countries, is further compounded through constant use of negative imagery depicting direct sufferers through a mechanism Cohen terms normalisation (Cohen, 2001). On the surface, this is a similar idea to that of ‘compassion fatigue’, but far less vague and more relevant in a global political power analysis. Compassion fatigue is the belief that donors cease donating and taking action against suffering because they have become so overwhelmed with images of so much suffering that they no longer believe that any actions they take can in any way contribute to the alleviation of such huge problems (Scott, 2014). Cohen’s theory of normalisation, on the other hand, does not assume that a Northern audience is overwhelmed by images of suffering, but has simply been saturated with so many that they begin to normalise INGO’s images of atrocity and suffering. What was once intolerable has instead become the accepted norm, so an indifferent response to the now expected is given rather than outrage (Cohen, 2001).

Though this clearly has implications for the effectiveness of the fundraising, what is important about this normalisation generated by negative representations with regards to how they reinforce the prevailing global power discourse is that with each fresh image comes a steady drip of suffering which has gone on to create the impression that being rife with suffering is ‘just what these countries are like’. In reality this is obviously not the case, but it is an incredibly powerful narrative to counter without being able to expose audiences in the Global North to the images of otherwise. Global power inequality then, is reinforced through this impression of the South legitimising the West’s impression of their lack of civility and ability to manage their own affairs effectively, which goes on to have the very real implications of neocolonial controlling aid, trade and intervention policies meeting little civil resistance, and of foreign business investors from the Global North being deterred from investing in the South.

Deliberately Positive Representations

Until the mid 1980s, the negative representations of citizens in developing nations were by far the dominant choice in INGO campaign communications. Though they still make up the bulk of it however, after this time there came a deliberate backlash against their use, for many of ‘common sense’ reasons detailed above, and as such there began a shift to instead use ‘deliberately positivism’ (Lidchi, 1999) in their representational image choices, and avoid the connotations (and criticisms) above. In their contemporary use, deliberately positive images have not truly been able to replace their negative predecessors, but are now more likely to be a feature of regular fundraising contact with an INGO’s supporters, than be used to generate donations in emergency appeals (Scott, 2014).

The visual trends of deliberately positive representational images draw on an immediacy approach, much like shock effect images do, but instead of the intention being to elicit emotional responses of pity, guilt, sympathy and shame from their audiences, the role of the medium in these cases is to provide evidence of the lives of development partners. Often the images chosen contain smiling young people, focus is on the evidence of the direct positive effects the actions of donors have ‘had’ on the beneficiaries, so accompanying text may often narrate personal success stories. The INGOs which chose to use it believe it reflects the individuality, dignity and agency of those whom the image depicts. They are given names and apparently ‘a voice’, personalised features about themselves, such as name, newly-trained for job, and a summarised life story or quote. One aim from this is that through personalising rather than fetishing them creates a sense of shared humanity between them and the audience.

Chouliaraki argues that through this approach, positivism and individualism combine to show that the Northern donor is able to make a real tangible contribution which directly improves a Southern sufferer’s life (Chouliaraki, 2010). She further claims that the emotional goals of such a representational strategy are to create a sense of shared humanity between them and the audience, so the motivation to act comes from empathy of their suffering (Chouliaraki, 2013), and clearly also the desire to feel part of a direct change to an individual with an instantaneous action. This is a suggestion particularly strong in INGOs who focus on child sponsorship (Scott [2014] cites one example of a child sponsorship advert from Plan International; it features a typically ethnic, smiling young child and reads ‘Sponsor a child with Plan. See the difference.’) and on images designed to appear online, as social media and website advertising allow for instant click-throughs of donations or shares. Representational strategies have a further function beyond fundraising raising awareness however. There is perhaps a parallel between the strategies of representation used and the INGO’s practices which follow (Lidchi, 1999), thereby choosing to use deliberately positive images over the negative is a brand statement on their part, and conveys, or destroys, their legitimacy and political klout they carry (Scott, 2014). Those INGOs which choose to employ deliberate positivity are more likely to have a focus of their work on broader development as opposed to immediate aid and humanitarian relief.


Why Positive Representations Reproduce Negative Discourses

Despite the more constructive nature of the practicing INGOs’ work though, there is an argument to be made against the use of deliberately positive images because of their reinforcement of the discourse of global power inequality too. Certainly, it is not at first as evident as when assessing shock effect images, which obviously compromise human dignity for financial and short-term development gain, however they have been asserted to be ‘two sides of the same coin,’ (Scott, 2014, p.151). Disagreeing somewhat, as there is at least a lower level of discourse reinforcement and sustaining of the objective violence level through INGOs utilising positive imagery over the negative, there are still some key mechanisms which perform this inadvertent function shared by both polarities of immediacy.

Both negative and positive representational techniques rely on photorealism (Chouliaraki, 2012), which clearly suggests a discourse of realism. However this means that still the very real complexities of a development partner’s situation are not conveyed to the fleeting Northern audience with this presence of a semiosis, meaning chances to go beyond the fleeting impression of an ethnic face with a call for donations prevails, no matter now that the face in question is active or smiling, as opposed to empty and malnourished. Therefore Northern audiences are still left with an unchallenged view of the Global South; that it has problems, and the Global North, as a wealthier and more civilised region is a provider of solutions, when in reality the existence of poverty in the Global South, is a product of oppression, political failures and the circulation of damaging discourses which hamper poverty’s alleviation — all of which the Global North has been complicit in. The images they rely on also fail to challenge pre-conceived stereotypes about a nation or area, which again feeds into the symbolic violence (Žižek, 2008) which extrapolated to all ‘Third World’ citizens then must experience.

One common example, images of smiling African farmers are common yet urban scenes outside of slums, or contemporary cultural expressions are not, and these semiosis combine to give rise to the circulation of a discourse that Africa is a continent of poverty and agriculture. While parts of it are, much as parts of Europe are too, the rich cultural diversity and thriving cities of the continent are rarely depicted, thus rarely considered in the schemas held of the ‘Third World’ by those in the Global North. This allows such broader but damaging to the global power system discourses to be legitimised around Northern ‘civilisation’ compared to the farmers of the Global South. A discourse of unequal civility was previously used to justify many colonial practices and define the identity of the Globally North as ‘civilised’ in comparison (Doty, 1996), and allowing this to be even inadvertently reproduced contributes then to the systemic violence (Žižek, 2008) experienced by individual Africans imposed by limiting assumptions of their capabilities, and a lack of Western civil objection to the paternalistic, controlling aid programmes of their Governments and the lack of support for a developing business infrastructure from either external businesses or external investors (Hoffman, 2005).

This representation of either slums or far-out villages is a similar depiction and result of those citizens in South America and Southern and Southeast Asia (Richardson, 2011). Extending the discourse of uncivilisation to the Orient too, as it also must navigate this imperial narrative (Said, 1978), which is then used by Western states to still justify interventions in these countries. Whether the interventions themselves are justified is a question for a different thesis, but they derive their legitimacy from drawing on the production of such discourses (Mohanty, 1988) that a strategy of deliberate positivism reinforces. Therefore the suggestive evidence that deliberately positive images rely on is no more complete than that implied in shock effect campaigns (Scott, 2014).

Deliberate positivism also reinforces another discourse of global power inequality by reproducing the dominant hegemony of the North as the wealthy and kind benefactor, giving to the ‘others’ in the South, and thus providing solutions to their problems. The positive imagery and success stories of the supposed sufferers ‘provides subtle evidence of the sufferer’s gratitude for the (imagined) alleviation of her suffering by a benefactor and the benefactor’s respective empathy towards the grateful sufferer,’ (Chouliaraki, 2010, p.8). This discourse is reinforced through the images smiling faces convey gratitude at having been saved, to the audience (Manzo, 2008). Therefore the appearance of agency that positive representations were supposed to provide developing nations’ citizens over negative ones is in fact undermined by a semiosis meaning which reinforces asymmetries of North-South power and a clear systemic violence (Žižek , 2008) of a hierarchy between generous, Western donors and grateful, Southern receivers. The hierarchy is successfully constructed through the implication of the South’s reliance on Western generosity. They are othered and subordinated because they are objects of our generosity (Chouliaraki, 2013), which translates into a narrative about entire nations.

Post-Humanitarian Communication — the Alternative?

As is clear, both negative ‘shock effect’ imagery and deliberate positivism used in INGO communications absolutely reinforce the prevailing Global power discourse of inequality between the North and the South. However, one may be left with the impression that all INGO communication which uses any kind of imagery is now complicit in the destruction to human dignity, or indeed the dignity of the Global South. In fact, a third method of INGO communication was pioneered in a response to the realist impasse of the immediacy representations; one which bypassed the impasse but transcending figurative representations at all. This was coined post-humanitarian communication (Chouliaraki, 2010), and are offered as the alternative to the previous practices of discourse-reinforcing images. Despite the intentions of an alternative though, this contemporary method still fails to challenge the prevailing discourse.

Post-humanitarian communications is in contrast to the immediacy of both deliberate positivism, and draw instead on a hypermediacy approach, so a Northern audience is reminded constantly of the presence of a medium. The visual trends of the emerged post-humanitarian communications feature abstract art or graphics, memorable and often clever slogans, and amusing, ironic images (Plewes and Stuart, 2007). As representational images of real development partners are not included, the brand values of the INGO and the graphics and slogan instead signal the development problem they are attempting to combat (Scott, 2014). Instead of dehumanising, they seek to de-emotionalise representations.

The combined effect of the hypermediacy, and other visual trends then is to present a low emotional impact, as there is no conscious attempt to create a feeling of pity, or guilt of complicity drawing on universal ethical or post-colonial discourse. Post-humanitarian communications ‘break with the moral mechanism of those appeals, whereby one thing, the immediacy of suffering, is assumed to be translated into another, action on suffering,’ (Chouliaraki, 2010, p.14). The new moral mechanism which is then employed is a focus on the self, and a form of self-reflection, self-empowerment or self-improvement which is aimed to inspire a Northern audience into action. Scott (2014) argues that simplicity, of the slogans used and the immediate but small actions asked for (for example, donating online, signing a petition or sharing a social media post, are the drivers of this de-emotionalisation.

However, this is an incorrect characterisation, as in this ever more media-marketised region with a struggle to capture the attention of audiences, it is clear that simplicity of design and undemanding nature of the action called for are not just limited to post-humanitarian communications, but to all INGO communications, hence the simple actions and obvious emotional switches employed, which is reflected across all strategies of representation. This simplicity shared by all then create a communications-driven INGO landscape which ultimately may fall short of inspire a sustained movement for change by failing to address the true complexities of the problems which lead to not only humanitarian disasters, but mass poverty and inequality, and states which govern without respect for human rights. Nonetheless, this is not a crisis of representation leading to a discourse of global power inequality, but a result of a fragmented and attention-starved media system in the Global North. On the other hand, it can be argued that the digitisation of media platforms could present an opportunity to show the true complexities, but new media does not affect the drivers which influence INGO’s willingness to do so. Such as donor attention and brand awareness (Scott, 2014).

Where post-humanitarian communication does reinforce the discourse of North and South power inequality is through the lack of image representations and instead the graphic and text representing the issue which affects the developing nation’s individuals, which strips them of any voice or human, personalised connection to convey their suffering or success story to those in the West who are then taking action supposedly on their behalf. At least positive or negative image representations give some allowance for this aspect. Silverstone argues that the absence of others in post-humanitarian communications reproduces the most extreme inequality of human life convery by power relations between the North and the South; by dehumanising distant others to the point of absolute non-existence (Silverstone, 2002). This is a minor interpretation of the discourse and colonial past however; citizens from the Global South were never dehumanised out of existence, but to complete irrelevance, or as objects existing for the use of the Global North.

Reflected in Chouliaraki (2011) this systemic violence (Žižek, 2008) is reproduced by post-humanitarian communications through the treatment of citizens from the Global South as nothing more than props which those audiences from the Global North are able to use in a contemporary way; for constructing narratives about ourselves as ‘good’ people, and as catalysts for our own self-expression of this. Taking action in the circumstances presented by a post-humanitarian communications strategy may be marketed as solidarity and as a way to negotiate and ultimately overcome the challenges to a global power equality presented by the immediacy approaches of deliberate positivism and shock effect negativity, but is in actual fact a Northern media consumer-driven ironic reproduction of a neo-colonial discourse. Taking this into account, is it even desirable for a Western audience to be allowed to be hidden from positive and negative images being shown to them? The use of such images serves the purpose of documenting ‘raw realism’ (Chouliaraki, 2010, p.5) and in some sense there is perhaps a duty to document the truth of the world to all audiences, in the least mediated form possible, otherwise purposeful absence of those who are partners in development risks reproducing the same practice Said identifies; using the Global South merely as a faceless concept from which to construct our own identities (Said, 1978).

Concluding Reflections

Though any examination of global political economy, and discourses reproduced in media will be limited and its ability to definitively measure the exact magnitude and effect, as demonstrated by this thesis it is clear that what effect there is from INGO’s images on the prevailing global power discourse of inequality cannot be a positive one. It is similarly clear that for INGOs, all the predominant strategies of representation reinforce this discourse to varying degrees. Therefore the steps taken to minimise the size of their contribution to this systemic violence should include proper consideration of the nuanced ways each image may interact with it; the country and the racial context of the photo’s subject provides a different discourse, which ultimately goes to reinforce the binary global power division. However INGOs would also be advised to avoid the use of negative representations almost completely, as they present the most consistent reinforcement of damaging discourses, in addition to questionable ethical regard for an individual’s dignity for the use of fundraising.

Everything this thesis argues for is also with the understanding that the INGO representations themselves are not themselves productive of discourses and inequality, they merely reflect and reproduce the other fundamental tensions tensions present in the functioning and presence of INGOs. These not only include the historically ingrained tensions of racism, global power inequality, discriminatory Western trade regulations, national and supranational neo-colonialist aid practices and an increasingly attention-starved media market, but many tensions which are specific to development INGOs themselves, which guide and restrict their practices. These include the pressure to fundraise, to provide direct causal evidence from projects and communications spending to donors, overburdened, under-trained and stressed staff from the fight to keep a low overhead cost (Hobbes, 2014), and the fact that, in reality, true development comes in slow ebbs rather than mass donation-attracting leaps.

Development practices need a small revolution, and abandoning problematic representation use is just one brick in the huge construction of the ‘Third World’ systemic violence which is prevalent in them. Meaningful development truly can enhance standards of living, but the complicity of Governments and INGOs in a discourse of inequality currently prevent its true realisation, as it is impossible to develop beyond a certain point without the ability to attract free trade deals, investors and diplomatic influence. Development and global power equality would benefit far more from the application of the standards of ethical practice; such as transparency, trade openness, and respect for state sovereignty, that the Global North attempts to force upon developing nations, being fully embraced by our Governments domestically first, before they try and control those of the South’s (Barder, 2012).


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