22 October 2012

Of Haitian Puppet Shows: Why We Should All Strive to Communicate Better

The following is by Meg Sattler and originally appears on AidSource.

A lot of work has been done in recent years to ‘professionalise’ humanitarian aid and development work. Reputable organisations don’t see themselves as ‘charities’, paternalistically handing things out to their many grateful dependents. They’re not staffed entirely by well-meaning volunteers with no immediately-observable skills. There’s been a shift, over decades, to focus less on chucking stuff off the back of trucks, and more on dignity, sustainability, accountability, empowerment, impact. The last thing we would want to do as aid workers, then, would be to use people in the ‘third world’ to feel better, or worse, about ourselves. And so it saddens me that we still feel the need to do this in our marketing.

This recent video shows people in Haiti reading out statements from twitter, repeating people’s #firstworldproblems. It has been criticised for making people feel guilty somewhat redundantly, as whenever someone uses the #firstworldproblems hashtag, they clearly have enough self-awareness to realize that whatever they are complaining about is trivial, in the grand scheme of things. From an effectiveness perspective, the video has also been criticised for not having a clear call to action. It leaves people feeling guilty, and then what? Personally, I have another gripe with this video, though.

I lived in Port au Prince for a decent amount of time, working as a Communications Manager for a very large aid organisation. I spent a lot of my time ‘in the field’, talking to individuals and families just like those who appear in the video, probably in a lot of the same places. I never kid myself that these relationships were entirely ‘equal’ (there is always going to be a power dynamic when you waltz into a community wearing a vest branded with the logo of an organization that is providing some kind of support, especially in a humanitarian aid situation), or that the stories I was hoping to obtain, and then share, were going to drastically improve the lives of those I spent time with. But there were certain principles I always followed. Some were obvious: Get permission, be respectful, consult Protection staff, follow rules of do-no-harm, etc. But one was particularly important to me: Always let the story come from the individual. Seems obvious... doesn’t it?

There can be a tendency for marketers working on humanitarian aid and development, particularly those who’ve not spent a long time in the field, to write people’s stories before they’ve met them. Before, in fact, they know anything about the people, at all. Any communicator who has spent a decent amount of time in the field would have received an email like this, at some stage:

“Please get me a story about a 5-8 year old girl, living in [insert really bad situation]. The story should be about how she feels [insert various negative emotions] because of [reiterate really bad situation]. It should show need, and demonstrate her [insert ‘trauma’ or similar word]. Photos should not show the girl smiling, because she is in a hard situation. Thanks, look forward to reading it!”

When you’ve trained as a journalist, these kinds of requests can sometimes make you laugh. But generally, they are extremely worrying. Serious ethical issues arise when humanitarian agencies begin using vulnerable people as actors in their own pre-written narratives.

In fragile state contexts including Haiti, people’s stories are complicated. This is because they live in difficult situations that can’t easily be fixed by a quick wave of the humanitarian aid wand. But it is also because they are human beings. And when you sit down with a woman living in harsh conditions in Haiti and have a conversation with her, listen to her opinions, struggles and joys and share some of your own, you’ll always end up with a story far more interesting than one pre-empted by a marketer in your head office. The potential for communications in humanitarian work is amazing. Besides the ability to share stories on behalf of those who need them told, to those who need to hear them, we can also – and better yet – equip communities with the skills, confidence and avenues to share their own stories. Beyond that, we can use communications skills to ensure communities have the knowledge they need to protect themselves from danger or illness, or to avail channels for people to share feedback on the work of NGOs, keeping us all accountable.

And then there is this other kind of communication; the kind that has people reading out statements, in a language that isn’t their first, for a reason they probably don’t understand, to a video camera. When I saw the #firstworldproblems video, I didn’t feel guilty. I just felt really, deeply sad. I was immediately transported back to those Haitian homes, camps, riverbanks where I’d spent hours talking to people whose stories, so vastly different from my own, never ceased to surprise and affect me. I wondered about the people in the video. What are their names? Where do they live? What are their situations? Who are their families? Are they educated? Do they work? What do they dream of? What makes them happy? I wondered whether they understood what they were saying. I wondered if they understood why. I wondered about the whole process, from start to finish.

I watched the video because a colleague had posted it on facebook. She had thought it was good. And then the website Mamamia posted it, and they thought it was good, too. And so did Huffington Post. And so after I watched it, and felt sad, I posted it too, but I added my thoughts. My aunt commented that she thought the ad was effective, but she phoned me afterwards. “It did move me, but I couldn’t like it. The poor Haitians looked like puppets.”

I am not writing this to attack the video, or its makers. I’m writing it to, hopefully, inspire some conversation, or thought, on how we all communicate, and how we might be able to do it better. Perhaps often we overlook certain ethical questions in our marketing tactics when we’ve high hopes for some kind of greater good with the end result. We may raise a lot of money, or create a lot of ‘awareness’. But I hope that I never contribute, on behalf of any agency aimed at empowering the marginalised, to any form of communication that reduces people – highly vulnerable people – to social media puppets. And that is my own #firstworldproblem.