Of exposed pregnant stomachs: images/depictions of philanthropy in the 21st century

 

Tendai Murisa

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One of the challenges that I have always faced in my close to 15 years working in the philanthropy or development space has been the use of images that appropriately capture the essence of our work, be it in agriculture, reproductive health or softer issues such as governance reforms. I think philanthropy has a bigger challenge – how do you capture giving? Surely you can’t just take a photograph of dollars or euros; you must tell the story of where the giving is going and inadvertently you end up having to use images of beneficiaries. Is there a way of doing this without provoking resentment on the part of the beneficiaries or other social observers?

One of the most consistent complaints about international NGOs that raise money in the Global North for overseas development has been their depiction of starving/malnourished young children. To be fair we have made some progress on this – although the recent Ebola scourge sort of brought back the need for vivid imagery to make the case for resources. Given the urgency of the crisis very few complained.

I have just been to the 26th European Foundation Centre (EFC) annual conference, held in Milan last week and there I saw a series of very beautifully captured and laid murals of pregnant women from Malawi exhibited as a story of giving into Africa. I suppose you are thinking of them dressed in those lovely brightly coloured ‘chitenje’ cloth – no, their pregnant stomachs are exposed as part of a story on giving to counter HIV/AIDS.

Honestly! Part of me is Malawian so I know how poverty is wreaking havoc on the social fabric but also how conservative their culture is. The women in these photographs could be my aunt or sister-in-law or just a friend and I sat thinking would she raise/lower her dress for me to see her pregnant stomach – absolutely no!

During Kamuzu Banda’s reign women were not allowed to wear even trousers! The situation has definitely changed since those dark days but it remains a predominantly conservative but still very culturally vibrant society. You should see them celebrate with those lovely bright colours and a sense of being dignified even in poverty. I am not sure if the women in those photographs were informed that their bodies would be part of a public display. Let’s assume that they did because I can’t imagine that somebody just came and asked them to stand semi-nude exposing their pregnant stomachs without asking them to sign something.

I think the murals tell a good story of how philanthropy is helping make a change in a donor-dependent country like many of our African countries. However, I am not sure if those images could be displayed in Malawi publicly without causing offence. Ultimately, philanthropy’s challenge is trying to help without negatively affecting the dignity and cultural norms of the beneficiaries. One of the easy refrains is that we are doing our best in an otherwise difficult situation. That is true but there should be some consideration of the values of the benefiting communities, otherwise we create hurt and pain.

Concerns about dignity and culture are universal but their application has to be context specific. There is a need among many of us to understand the landscape of values that define a group of people, and in the same vein to ensure that our philanthropy does not do harm. This principle has mostly been used when condemning aid to undemocratic countries, but it also applies to questions of social contexts and how we interact with communities. Do we leave them feeling better about themselves?

There is no doubt that this organization/initiative is doing a lot of good work in Malawi but did they need the photographs of exposed pregnant stomachs to tell their HIV/AIDS story? I am not sure. We are all sadly competing to come up with the most interesting sound bites and in the process such things do happen. I am sure there is another way of communicating. Sure let’s tell the story(ies) of our good work but remember context does matter. In this sense context entails a deep understanding of culture, values and norms. We should prioritize the dignity of those whom we support otherwise we find ourselves alienated despite our good philanthropic intentions.

Tendai Murisa is executive director of TrustAfrica.


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