Posted by: mhirdyounger | May 22, 2014

The Power of Representation

In my last blog post, I expressed my frustration with the way that some development organizations and charities use pictures that take away a person’s dignity to get donors and funding. At the end of the post, I challenged organizations to represent beneficiaries and partners as individuals with many stories, dignity and agency. With choice. I argued development organizations also have a choice, a choice of how they represent those they work with and ‘for’.

This post is to build on that argument by providing some practical reflection pieces to support nuanced communications that show multiple stories. This is a short brief that I created with some of my colleagues at Engineers Without Borders* through participatory workshops to understand what steps, questions, and reflections we can use to ensure that our communications represent the grey spaces of ‘Africa’ and don’t represent poverty as a simple issue that money alone will solve.

The Power of Representation

When representing Africa through words, pictures our work and other mediums,

we strive to…

  • Think about partnership, honesty, truth, respect and equality
  • Consider diversity…of people, circumstances, perspectives
  • Be genuine.
  • Be conscious and intentional about our messages
  • Avoid generalizations and breakdown stereotypes
  • Think about how we ourselves have been mis-represented and about how we would like to be represented.
  • Imagine or actually have a permission slip is attached to each of our messages and that the subject has to sign off on it each time.
  • Take responsibility for the implications and consequences, intentional and unintentional of our representations.

we ask ourselves…

  • Who is represented? How are they represented?
  • How will the audience react? What will the audience notice?
  • What does the representation achieve?
  • What is left out? What are we not saying/including?
  • To what extent can we represent Africa? Those living in poverty?
  • What power do our representations have?
  • What dangers of interpretation exist?
  • To what extent are stereotypes reinforced?
  • What assumptions, biases, perceptions and perspectives underpin what we represent?
  • Why are these our messages?
  • What kinds of things do Africans/our African partners want to be represented?
  • What would it be like to have a Zambian NGO working in Canada? How would I feel? How would I want Canada to be represented?
  • Does this align with my/EWB’s values?
  • What would my partner organization say?

we strive to balance…

  • Negativity with positivity,
  • Simplicity and conciseness of messaging with the complexity of reality
  • How do we balance messaging (to donors, chapters, etc.) and keeping the nuances/complexities of our work?

Ultimately, we have to remember that our stories and communications as development workers and organizations have power. Power to shape how entire societies’ perceive the continent of Africa. Reflecting critically on that power is about striving to tell multiple stories, about not representing poverty as one story of a child with flies in their eyes.

What would you add to this list? Does your organization have a resource that you use to ensure your communications are nuanced and thoughtful about their power of representation? 

*Thanks to Michael Kennedy, Ryan Bourque and Louise Lyman who worked with me at EWB to develop this list through workshops.


  1. Is this specific to EWB, or does this include personal blogs by fellows?

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