The world viewed through an NGO lens

16 10 2011

A friend has a postcard on his fridge that reads, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans Geography.”

It is true that most Americans know little of the world beyond their shores and that their politicians practice casual xenophobia by routinely mispronouncing the names of the countries with whom they have differences, like I- rak and I-ran.

But are they alone in their ignorance? Are we much better?

Pretty much everything that I know about the world is viewed through a BBC lens which, while not as obviously biased as CNN and Fox, certainly has it’s own editorial style. For example, frequent reference to rogue states, failed states, the axis of evil will, over time, mould our judgement of these countries.

But it is the promotion of one particular world view that concerns me.

Africa is a huge continent made up of many countries large and small and richer and poorer yet what is our over-arching view? That most people are starving. This is because the images that fill our screens are of starving children. So where does the BBC get these images and the stories that underlie them?

The BBC doesn’t have many reporters in Africa. They rely largely on local sources to bring stories to their attention and to grant access to the images that later fill our screens. Typically these stories are provided by the NGOs who, being largely staffed by English speaking workers, provide an easy route to stories.

But are the NGOs the best people to provide a balanced picture? I think not.

Put simply, NGOs rely on donations from the developed world to support their work in Africa and beyond. It is easy to see why they might feed particular stories to news corporations, including the BBC. Images of starving children beamed into the living rooms of middle-England ensures that the stream of donations flows freely. From the point of view of the NGO industry this is perfectly reasonable. They are commercial businesses which rely on donations to survive. It is in their interest to proffer stories that will result in increased donations. In purely commercial terms there is nothing wrong with this. And I am not suggesting that the work that they do isn’t valuable and worth supporting.

My concern is that the stories they tell and the images that accompany them are only part of the story but this singular narrative is the one that fills our screens, newspapers and radio broadcasts.

If we are to avoid having a simplistic world view we need more balanced reporting, or at least stories trawled from a wider sea.

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