Book review: New mediums, better messages? How Innovations in Translation, Engagement, and Advocacy Are Changing International Evolution by David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock
New mediums, better messages? How innovations in translation, engagement, and advocacy are changing international development. David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers, and Michael Woolcock (eds). Oxford University Press. 2022.
New mediums, better messages? Explosions opens up the debate about how international development is represented and understood worldwide with fresh insights from practitioners and analysts of a wide range of communication mediums. The book underscores the issue that representations matter: how people, places, organizations, and political, economic, and social processes are represented in writing, images, music, video, art, theater, blogs, and other media (new and old) that shape how global actors, large and small, shape understanding of the world and act in response to that understanding.
Critical analysis of perceptions of global poverty and development aroused public interest in the aftermath of the Ethiopian famine and charitable appeals in the 1980s. Although effective as a fundraiser, it was also widely condemned as ‘poverty porn’: portraying dark-skinned people in the global south as passive victims of poverty in desperate need of help, with development agencies in the global north. in the role of rescuers. bob geldof and midge o’er song, ‘Does she know it’s Christmas?’It became the de facto anthem for this way of representing and understanding international development.
Critical analysis of prevailing racist and colonial stereotypes about the Global South (as powerless/lazy/corrupt/dirty/dangerous/victims) and the Global North (as moral and intellectual benefactor) remains very important, precisely because stereotypes are so harmful and persistent – from feature films to charity fundraising campaigns. This edited volume supports this critique but also opens the discussion about how development can be represented by engaging with media, voices, and ideas that have often been ignored in the past.
Image credit: photography Mr. Uthaporn Bradpong employment unsplash
The volume moves important conversations forward in at least four important ways: insights from the creators of the representations; more attention to audiences’ responses; more attention to how people in the global south represent their own experiences; and new places to look for representations of global poverty and development.
Insights from the creators
The most significant analysis of perceptions of global poverty and development—including mine—has been produced by two-armed critics in universities and NGOs. By contrast, this volume brings the voices of the creators themselves—novelist, playwright, blogger, musicians, and filmmaker. Reflecting on the process of creating representations of development, these volume contributors highlight the multiple tensions and difficult decisions behind their work and efforts to translate the complexities and nuances of global poverty to Northern audiences with a background of limited understanding and expectations built on traditional stereotypes. In particular, we learn about how they dealt with concerns about decolonization amid competing demands to engage audiences, satisfy financial backers, and represent their subjects in ways that are ethical, honest, and dignified.
The audience does not passively absorb ideas reflected in films, photographs, novels, newspapers, music, theater, or other forms of cultural production. Instead, the ideas of creators and audiences collide to produce meaning—often with results that critics can’t anticipate.
One of the main strengths of this book is the attention to the sometimes surprising tenor of audience responses and the innovative ways the authors attempt to capitalize on them. These methods include observing audience reactions to a development play (laughter, silence, surprise), readers’ responses to blog posts, conversations with community members involved in the production of a feature film in Tanzania and university students’ reactions to images of African garbage dumps and the people who work in them. .
Several chapters highlight the lack of widespread interest among audiences in the Global North in issues of poverty and development in the Global South, which are seen as “interesting but unexciting” (73). As Hilary Standing points out in a reflection on the market of her novel about arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh (genetics powder), “The Development Novel” is “a barely readable area of literary fiction” (89). These insights help explain the challenges of engaging audiences from the Global North ‘where they are’ in their interest and understanding of global justice without upsetting or distorting the lives of people experiencing material poverty in other parts of the world.
Representations and responses from the global south
One pressing question that almost always arises about representations of the Global South in the Global North is: What do people in the Global South think of them? The voices of the actors themselves are often left out of discussions about representation, whether because of the costs of field research or the elitist and possibly racist assumption that expert opinions matter more.
By contrast, many of the chapters in this volume directly examine self-perceptions of development from the global south and southern responses to northern representations. Caroline Sage’s chapter on contemporary arts festivals in Nigeria and Nepal explores the ways in which local artists, authors and film producers are working to regain the ability to tell their stories and resist the ways in which they are framed by the outside world. Sophie Harman’s chapter reflects the reactions of the Tanzanian communities represented in her feature film Bailey. Patrick Kabanda’s chapter highlights the resourcefulness of Zambian filmmakers operating on shoestring budgets as an example of a thriving creative economy in the global south.
New places to search and new ways to see
This book invites readers to pay attention to representations of evolution in often-overlooked places–from popular music (Chapter One) to video games (Chapter Six) to radio documentaries (Chapter Seven) to art festivals (Chapter X)–and brings insights from Diverse fields of study such as film studies and video game studies are in conversation with international development thinking.
By bringing together the reflections of cultural producers with responses from audiences and those who are represented, this book dramatically raises the bar for future research and analysis. It’s not enough to be an armchair critic. A deeper understanding of how and why poverty and development are represented in the world requires input and insights from cultural producers and consumers around the world as well as the voices of those who are represented. This volume shows that such research and reflection is possible and points the way forward for how we think about cultural production about global poverty and development.