Protagonists and power: why the aid organization shouldn’t be at the center of the story

Protagonist: the main figure or one of the most prominent figures in a real situation. The leading character or one of the major characters in a drama movie, novel, or other fictional text. An important person who is involved in a competition, conflict, or cause.

However flawed, a protagonist is the hero of any story – real or fictional. We learn to see the world through his/her eyes. We see challenges similarly to how s/he sees challenges. We feel the excitement of solutions as s/he does.

Protagonists capture our attention. We see them as the leaders in these stories. In our eyes they are never powerless, even when the odds are stacked against them. Even when we don’t agree with decisions they make, we understand. Because for a moment, we have seen the world through their eyes. We learn to see them as complex human beings, who get to make choices, even if their options are limited. And if they triumph, it feels like our own victory as well.

But what happens when the protagonist gets shoved to the side? When a supporting character gets all the credit where perhaps only some was due?

Unfortunately, as we know, in international development communications this is often the case. The protagonist becomes the foreign aid worker/agency, rather than the people they’re trying to help. But the aid workers often only stay for a couple of years, and the agencies move as international political priorities shift. The storyline remains the same: aid workers delivering goods and services – saving the world, one shoeless child at a time.

But what about the people these efforts are meant to help? Are they not supposed to be the protagonists in their own lives? Even if they’re receiving some sort of aid or benefit, why should they suddenly become supporting characters in stories that are supposed to be about their empowerment?

Understandably, NGOs are trying to advocate for their causes and to raise money to keep working. I get it. I work in fundraising and communications. But telling stories about challenges, actions, and impact in international development doesn’t have to mean a continuation of patronizing narratives.

Think about word choice, perspective, and the voices of the people you work with. Think about framing. Small changes can make a big difference.

The all-too-familiar BandAid feaux paus represent how the public’s views of poor people, especially those in poorer countries, fail to see these people as protagonists. Instead, from this viewpoint, they have become passive sidekicks in the West’s journey to save the world.

When protagonists aren’t allowed to use their voices to tell their own stories, it becomes easier for them to become the ‘other.’ In other words, it’s easy to stop seeing them as fully human.

From the way aid projects are designed, to how they’re reported, to how the stories are told in broader media/outreach outlets, the protagonists are often left out of the process. And aid effectiveness has suffered because of it.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

If we see people as protagonists, we’ll include them from the beginning. And rather than trying to tack on ‘local ownership’ as an objective at the end, they’ll own the process as equal partners from the beginning. Because protagonists own their stories.

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