"Before we can think about changing our narratives, we need to understand them" - Eilish Dillon

30 april 2018

This is the fourth and final post in the Dóchas Conference 2018 blog series. The Conference - Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development - will take place on Thursday 3 May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.

We are asking leaders and innovators across civil society to respond to a set of questions around the theme of the conference, public engagement. Contributors are invited to respond to a number of questions or to focus on just one.

Our final contributor is Eilish Dillon. Eilish coordinates the MA in International Development at the Kimmage Development Studies Centre and has recently completed Doctoral research on discourses of development education in Ireland. For 40 years, Kimmage DSC has facilitated education and training for development practitioners working in a range of occupations from over 65 countries.

Here is her response:

In an era of instant news and social media, how can we encourage people to engage with issues of global poverty, inequality and injustice? 

When I first saw the title of this year's Dóchas conference, I was taken aback. 'Changing the Narrative' by 'Building Support for Global Development'. 'Isn't that what the main narrative is? What's different about that?', I asked myself. I have also had a negative gut response to the Twitter campaigns '#aidworks' and '#IrishAidWorks'. All seem to be about defending aid and development with little emphasis on questioning either. As sound bites, these campaigns are attractive and have a lot of support, but is that enough? The question 'what narrative(s) need to be changed and what might they be changed to?' is also raised by the title of the conference. As such, a good starting place, it appears to me, when looking at how to encourage people to engage with issues of global poverty, inequality and injustice, is the framing of the conference itself. At the very least, I suggest the need to move from promoting 'support for' global development to 'critical engagement with' it. 

For me, if Non-Governmental Development Organisations (NGDOs) really want to change the narratives around global development in Ireland, and I think some do, they need to do at least three things. Firstly, they need to focus on questioning deeply held assumptions and narratives rather than simply trying to 'change' them. At the same time, they need to change what they say about development, how they advertise, the images they use and the messages they send. These are related and deeply challenging issues. Thirdly, it is not about just engaging people in support for global development, but in questioning it.

In Ireland, we have a relatively long history of engagement in global development. This has established systems, cultures and ways of understanding and relating which are framed in very particular global development terms. Many of these can't just be shifted or changed by changing the language we use. Before we can think about changing our narratives, we need to understand them, to question them honestly, to hold them up for undefensive scrutiny, and to critically examine their assumptions and implications. This involves trying to understand what shapes them, what strengthens some and restricts others, why some are very difficult to shift and why we often revert to culturally established, uncritical ways of thinking.

Simply replacing one narrative with another cannot bring the types of critical transformation needed to address poverty, inequality and injustice in our world. This requires deep, fundamental questioning of our assumptions about global development realities and practices, about what it is we are doing (and who 'we' are) and about the forces which are framing this practice. 

This brings us into the realm of politics and power. Though there are many influences on global development narratives in Ireland, here it is important to question how NGDOs are reinforcing or challenging stereotypical development narratives and assumptions (charity as opposed to social and political structural transformation; aid and development agencies as the answer; a focus on poverty as opposed to wealth, etc). So often when it comes to global development images and messages, it is assumed that 'the end justifies the means', that NGDOs are portraying 'the truth', not just 'a truth', and that NGDO representations are logical and defensible responses to their economic realities and to 'what the public will respond to'.

While on the one hand agencies pride themselves on their adherence to the Dóchas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages, on the other, they struggle to change established advertising and marketing practices. On the surface, there are more pictures of smiling children than before and more stories about real people's lives, but these coexist with charity images of victims and saviours, and simplified messages about the way the world works which individualise and depoliticise development realities. These have enormous long-term detrimental effects on people's sense of themselves and others in the world, on notions of superiority and inferiority and on relationships between countries and peoples North-South.

As long as these representations go largely unchallenged in social media or other communications, even where other practices improve, public understanding of and engagement in issues of global poverty, inequality and injustice will be limited. If NGDOs are to begin to change narratives, they need to seriously question the assumptions which underpin their marketing and advertising, the implications of them in perpetuating or challenging stereotypes, and to explore viable alternatives. 

When it comes to building support for global development, many NGDOs emphasise public engagement in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), for example, or in volunteerism or activism on debt, refugee or climate justice. At the same time, understandings of public engagement are often vague and limited or focused on the 'Global South' rather than on local-global realities and relationships. While social media offer opportunities for mobilisation through crowd funding, campaign support, education and activism, they can promote superficial engagement with activism reduced to clictivism, short-term campaigns based on the latest trends or sound bite analysis. However NGDOs communicate, when engagement is portrayed simply in terms of supporting development or campaigns like #aidworks, it seems to me that there is little chance of changing any narratives.

Rather than being about building faith in global development or aid, public engagement needs to be based on critical questioning of notions of global development and issues of poverty, inequality and injustice (including narratives and their assumptions), of aid practices and institutions, and of public engagement itself. Perhaps then, there might be some chance of 'changing the narrative(s)' and of building more 'critical engagement with' rather than merely 'support for' global development in Ireland.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dóchas.

Catch up on the Dóchas Conference 2018 blog series:

Dóchas Conference 2018 logo. An open notebook with the title, time and date of the conference handwritten on its pages.

The Dóchas Conference 2018 - Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development - will take place on 3 May, from 10.30am - 5.30pm, in the Croke Park Conference Centre. Speakers include Ruairí De Búrca, Director General, Irish Aid; Heba Aly, Director, IRIN; Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO, CIVICUS; Judith Greenwood, Executive Director of CHS Alliance; and Rafeef Ziadah, Lecturer, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS University of London, spoken word artist and human rights activist. Our MC for the day will be journalist and broadcaster Dil Wickremasinghe.

Book your place.


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