Something I enjoy doing with friends is sitting in cafes and making up elaborate stories about the strangers who are around us. On the occasions when I have been able to strike up a conversation with the person we have been observing, I am always left surprised; they never have the life we had created for them. We do this all the time—we form stories about people through our own experiences, what we hear of them, what we know or see, and what we believe or just feel about them. Drawing upon our own stock of knowledge, our understanding of others forms from this place of storied experiences and information.
Likewise, when we see a picture of a person in poverty, we can make up an elaborate story about who they are that might be far from their reality. World Vision New Zealand is aware of this dynamic and in response is launching an exciting new approach to marketing for support. Rather than focusing solely on individual children, they are shifting the focus to consider vulnerable children and the communities they reside in. In this community approach, World Vision is engaging local field reporters to share stories directly from the communities themselves. In this way, World Vision is aiming to create a mutually transformative experience for both the donor and the community. I was invited to carry out research to see what impact this new approach to marketing has on donors’ pre-existing stories of people in poverty.
World Vision, as a sharer of people’s stories, is in a position of power—their images tell a story that constitutes the subject’s identities to us. Jesus had all the power in the universe and demonstrated that power in service. World Vision seeks to emulate Christ not only by serving those in poverty, but by empowering them to tell us their own stories and sharing the changes they are making. World Vision’s desire is that donors and recipients gain a sense of mutuality, being equally made in the image of God.
In this article, I look first at the predominant influences of our stock knowledge that could affect the way we see those in poverty. Secondly, I look at the stories that donors involved in the study had developed through child sponsorship images, and I contrast these with the stories emerging through community sponsorship imagery. The findings are both exciting and groundbreaking.
Stock of knowledge
Pause for a moment and ask yourself these questions:
- What causes people to be in poverty in a place such as Africa?
- What are ways they can get out of poverty?
- Where have I gathered this information from?
- What does Jesus teach me about poverty and my response?
Your answer to these questions reveals your theory about poverty. This theory is simply a story we tell ourselves and others, yet it shapes our actions towards those about whom the story has been created. Further, it reveals that we, as the New Zealand public, do not engage with images and stories distributed by those such as World Vision with a blank slate point of view.
Chimamanda Adiche, an inspiring author and academic, looks at dominant stories about Sub-Saharan Africa formedthrough Western literature. In a TED talk in 2009, Adiche noted how merchant John Lok in 1561 referred to black Africans as “beasts who have no houses” in his accounts of his travels. She comments that his writing “represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness.”1 Many missionaries at this time wondered if Africans even had souls.
Through the 1800s, colonisation swept through Africa. As these colonised countries gained independence in the mid-late 1900s, the narratives shifted to focus on the lack of competent African leaders and the failings of its states. People in Africa were presented as being inferior over and over again... and to the world, that is what they became.
Adiche argues, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”2 Such stories—singularised despite being about an array of people—inform and consolidate our stock of knowledge and the stories we ourselves create.
Stories we have formed
Most NGOs in the world use pictures of impoverished children to stir empathy and action because a child is universally relatable regardless of their ethnicity; a child has no political agenda; he or she simplifies a complex system of injustice and enables a one-on-one connection.3
While World Vision has used child sponsorship as a form of marketing for support, in their development practice they work with the whole community. At every step they seek to partner with, collaborate with, and empower adults and their children. Yet our stock of knowledge and the child-heavy imaging used across NGOs could mean people are not seeing communities as the active change-makers that they are. Through heavy child imaging, poverty is made to be ahistorical and apolitical, meaning our stock knowledge rushes to the foreground and becomes the lens through which we engage with the child.
For my research, I showed participating donors a number of images of children from countries deemed to be poor. They were asked to give their initial reactions to each image and reasons why the child was in poverty. The most common answer given by the participants was a lack of adult leadership, with the cause of poverty being their misuse of resources. They did not view adults as having the ability to bring about positive change but instead labelled them as the cause of the child’s poverty. The donors often interpreted the images in a way that meant they saw a child in a passive, powerless community waiting for their help.
However, one participant was very perceptive. They said: “It feels like I have had the word ‘poverty’ projected onto me regarding her situation! I would only be projecting my bias into the situation…”
This participant highlights something we all need to take into consideration: our biases. There is a need to be able to identify and critically analyse the single stories we have heard of people and places in poverty.
Being enriched by others
Through World Vision’s end-to-end research, they have shown that they are not afraid to consult, consider, and implement a different way forward. Their new approach to marketing creates an opportunity for a whole community to be supported by New Zealand donors. In this way, many stories are told, not just child-related ones. They are also looking for ways the community can impact their donors through rich content.
Having shown participating donors images of children, they were then shown pictures gathered by World Vision’s field reporters. There was a vast difference between the first words that came to their minds when they saw child sponsorship images compared to this new approach. With child sponsorship images, they saw a passive child with a lack of adult leadership. But in these new images, they saw a proactive community making positive changes to better their future. Participants used words like: “organised,” “working hard,” “employment opportunities,” “coming together,” “skills,” “teaching,” and “equipping.” One response encapsulated their understanding of World Vision’s new community based approach: [This approach] “provides an opportunity to bless others, but also to learn from others. It helps us understand that those pictured may be rich in areas we may be poor in—there can be a mutual reciprocity that helps us grasp the essence of the Sermon on the Mount, thus challenging our predominant cultural norms.”
The key difference identified was that the images give a more holistic view of World Vision’s work. The purpose of this new imagery is to show a community helping themselves and self-advocating, but also to help the donor understand how they can learn and in turn be enriched by that same community.
World Vision’s desire is to represent people in poverty first and foremost as made in the image of God. This means that people, no matter how destitute, are shown with dignity and with strengths and abilities that can shape the development of their own communities. Jesus came to this world so that everyone might live life to its fullest. Jesus presented a radically different view of how life, relationships, and society can be. He gives us a glimpse of how things can be, and this motivates World Vision to work for justice for all. They desire that their donors also have this fullness of life, by being enriched through reciprocal rather than unilateral relationships with the communities they support. When we look at other people through this lens and see that we are all bearers of God’s image, we see the face of Jesus in everyone we meet. And this is truly transformative.
Story: Sarah Rice
Sarah is co-pastor of Papanui Baptist Church and also part of the Baptist Justice Initiative.
1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The danger of a single story”, TED, ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
3. Nandita Dogra, Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs (London: I.B Tauris, 2012).
- How often this week have you told the story of someone else?
- What informed this and how was this conveyed? Was it constructive?
- How could you better understand the story of others?