Reforming Poverty Research: Perceptions and Portrayals of Faraway Places
Raymond W. Weyandt
Speaking at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus insisted that the writer of any generation bears a heavy obligation to serve the citizens of that generation. “The writer’s role is not free from difficulties,” he asserted. “He cannot put himself today into the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.” As researchers and writers disseminating our work in a world where information is more available than ever before, we bear a similar obligation to our generation’s citizens. We must write about our findings in ways that accurately portray the lives and communities of our subjects of interest. Above all, we must avoid bias and misrepresentation as we report on issues and individuals historically plagued by narrative inaccuracies.
In June 2013, I traveled as an undergraduate research assistant to East Africa with IPD co-founder Dr. Michael Findley and my friend and IPD colleague Caroline Thomas. Our time in Uganda and Rwanda provided many insights, through both academic research and everyday interactions, into Western misperceptions of life in Africa.
During a six-week, mentored field experiment that we co-designed and executed (along with a team of our peers from the AidData Research Consortium), we tasked local Ugandan photographers with capturing images of daily life and poverty in Kampala, the capital city. We then surveyed Ugandan citizens about the accuracy of the images. We found preliminary evidence that photographers were more likely to sensationalize their images when they received certain prompts as to the intended use of their photographs. For the group of photographers that generated our most significant results, the prompt was that their photographs would be used to raise funds for an international NGO. While this initial experiment was brief, we were able to craft a method for measuring inaccuracies in reporting poverty and development issues. Measuring bias and inaccuracy in depictions of poverty can serve as the first step towards reversing this trend.
The following images offer an initial example of the types of misconceptions and generalizations that have infiltrated our collective understanding of life in Africa. In the first, a simple Google Image search query “African people” reveals a series of ornately decorated individuals in rural settings. We are offered some advanced search suggestions, including culture, starving, poor, and dancing. Are these the images that come to mind when we consider “African people”? Furthermore, is this how most people in Africa appear in reality?
In the second image, one of the first photographs that I took upon arriving in Kampala, we find a scene that is much more reminiscent of the lives of the people in and around population centers in Uganda (or most any other nation). Joseph, a young family man who works for several property owners in the city, takes a break from his work to send a few texts on his mobile phone.
Sadly, one key variable of interest that we were unable to measure in our study was motivation. Omitting any outright intention to deceive the public, what drives photographers, writers, and other members of the media to produce flawed representations of reality? Perhaps media (in this case photographers) seek to portray an image that they perceive as expected by, or familiar to, their audience. In the case of our fundraising for NGOs prompt, it is possible the sensationalized photographs were composed inaccurately in order to motivate donors to give more.
But even this type of “good-hearted” motivation is problematic. When we learn inaccuracies, we replicate them and disseminate them to others. Because of this cycle, yet another generation’s understanding of its global neighbors is subject to distortion. To consumers of inaccurate images, all African children continue to be doe-eyed with bloated bellies and empty plates. All African women continue to be victims of repression, child-rearing subjects without any innovative ideas of their own but with plenty of grass balanced atop their helpless heads. The generalizations seem to go on forever.Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie refers to this type of narrative as “the single story,” and she warns us of its danger. Describing her first exposure to the handcrafted goods for sale in rural villages in her native Nigeria, Adichie, who had experienced an urban, “developed” childhood, recalls:
“I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in [in the villages] could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”
As social science researchers communicating our findings to an audience beyond academia, we must embrace with rigor our obligation of service to our subjects of interest, to those collections of people that we seek to understand, and to the individuals who encounter the phenomena that we seek to explain. We must take care to depart from stereotypes that classify as “Other” our fully equal, fully human global neighbors. We must design research that blurs the line between Global South and North and other dangerous binaries, bearing always in mind how recently our predecessors were producing misleading narratives of a “dark” continent, “savage” inhabitants, and “backward” societies.
With each key and pen stroke, we wield the opportunity to condemn and correct these types of inaccurate representations as we continue swiftly down a new and different path. The “single story” is ours to rewrite; its gaps are ours to fill. Striving for accuracy and cognizant of our collective tendency toward bias, today’s generation of emerging researchers stands poised to deliver a service that an information-saturated generation is aching to receive: the truth.
*this post originally appeared on the Innovations for Peace and Development Blog.