So, I just watched The Gunman (I was stuck on an airplane, okay?). Maybe it was the jet-lag. Or maybe it was the fact that I am still somewhat crabby from Haiti, but I have to say that I just found the portrayal of aid workers and aid NGOs, well, offensive. Not to be all dramatic and I’m-a-victim, but there it is.
It seems we can’t go for more than a few days without another breaking story about how bad the aid industry is. We can’t account for the money. We harm both those we say we’re trying to help, and also our very own colleagues. We didn’t build enough houses. We’re co-opted for bad purposes by bad people. And right alongside all of that, there’s this growing background hum of popular culture discussion about how to fix it all. We need to report better. We need to hire more local people to be in charge of stuff. We need to stop training. We need to be more hands-on. No, wait–we need to focus on policy. De-worm/not de-worm. Micro-credit. No, cash, not micro-credit. We need to regulate more. We need to be nicer and less arrogant.
But out of all this noise, what comes more clearly to me by the day is that we have a huge problem of representation–representation of us and of what we do.
There is lots of very visible critique lately around representation of “the poor”, of “beneficiaries” or “aid recipients,” or whatever other terms might come into vogue (one good, recent example here). And rightly so, as this critique has been long in coming and slow to have effect. But let’s not stop there.
Once more, not to be all aid-workers-are-victims, but, well, we kind of are. We are regularly mis-represented and made to look like idiots, whether in films, failed television series, or simply by every actor/actress who starts her or his NGO. We’re misrepresented by our own industry, by our own employers, even, who market a version of what we do that makes it all look easy and fun, and makes fixing the world’s problems seem simple. We’re made to appear as if all it takes to do what we do is a willingness to endure tropical heat and (maybe) the ability to drive a car with manual transmission.
Aid workers, perhaps especially those of us who came of age before there was much of an aid industry to speak of, are notorious for understating their contribution. “Aw shucks, I’m not doing much of anything special… I just sent a lot of email…” And in so doing we are also complicit in our own mis-representation. I’m not at all saying that we should overstate, or be arrogant or boastful. But I absolutely think that the time for self-deprecating affected humility has now passed. If you’re in the industry and cannot articulate what, exactly, you do, and how, exactly, that thing you do feeds into the larger picture of making the world better, then you need to get out.
I think it’s time to adopt the language and rhetoric of “rights.” We’re an industry, a global workforce. It is (or should be) our right to be represented accurately, fairly, and inoffensively. Arguing about the technicalities of humanitarian practice is easily blown off. We have to say things like, “it’s our right…” or “I’m offended…” because that’s what gets heard. It is our right to be represented fairly, whether in movies about us, by the media, or by our own industry’s marketing. Maybe it’s time to start demanding that Sean, Angelina, George, Ben, et al either stop pretending to be us, or commit to getting it right on and off screen.
So, will representing aid workers accurately in films like The Gunman fix everything wrong with aid? No, of course not. But how we think and talk about aid matters. It matters because how we (all) think and talk about aid has a shaping effect on how we do it. And if we consistently get the talking about it part wrong, including representation of us and what we do, it follows that we’re going to keep getting the doing part wrong, too.