How to tell the development story that Stacey Dooley and Comic Relief missed

They say a picture tells a thousand words - but if it's a snap of Stacey Dooley perching a Ugandan child on her hip, it will then generate thousands more, debating the merits of white celebrity ambassadors.

Give people you help an identity to avoid distorting the story, argues Donna Bowater
Give people you help an identity to avoid distorting the story, argues Donna Bowater

What they haven’t addressed so far, though, is how organisations working on international development issues – from NGOs, researchers, fundraisers or advocates – can tell the story of the 'global south' in a way that is accurate, respectful and yet still effective.

Raising awareness of the challenges and progress in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere is a perfectly noble cause.

And the unfortunate reality is that "flies in their eyes" imagery does unquestionably succeed in raising money.

Yet, the long-term cost – as Comic Relief and Dooley have demonstrated – is that it also creates an anonymity or 'otherness' to poverty, disadvantage or development, which distorts perceptions and undermines the living and breathing human story beneath.

Having worked in this sector (and previously as a foreign correspondent), I’ve seen a different way to tell that story, which focuses on the people rather than the so-called "plight" - a generic shorthand intended to tug at the heartstrings.

And it’s a kind of storytelling that reduces the gap between "us" and "them" as much as possible until we recognise this is actually "our" global story.

The first step is to accept, whether you’re a funder, a researcher or a celebrity, that "it’s not about me."
Framing such as Dooley’s Instagram caption ("OB.SESSSSSSSSSSED") focuses more attention on the benefactor than the beneficiary, alienating them and making them a voiceless, exotic "other".

Instead, those with an international reach can bridge the divide by sharing their platform, elevating voices from the global south by putting them front and centre of the camera, the headline and the focus.

Next, the narrative should go beyond the "plight" to the potential, showing evidence of positive results of a development project or aid, or the steps necessary to reach them.

How different the outcome if Dooley had showcased the hopes and dreams of the young Ugandan boy in her photo, making him more recognisable to us and mirroring the same aspirations that we have for ourselves and our families.

Finally, finding our common ground requires making these stories personal.

Even the merest fragments of biographical information - a mother, a 42-year-old, a football fan, a student - help make it a far more compelling story.

It’s why the story of Alan Kurdi, three, and his family was even more powerful than when he was simply the faceless Syrian boy washed up on the beach.

There are many development organisations (and celebrities) using PR to tell these stories well, from the innovators driving Uganda’s burgeoning technology and AI scene to the cooperative leaders helping Uganda’s coffee farmers to improve their traceability and their premiums.

And Comic Relief has an enormous potential to do the same.

Ultimately, the most effective PR for development is in the stories with which we identify, but which we recognise are not ours.

Donna Bowater is an associate at Marchmont Communications and a former journalist

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