Hacking The Narrative
We don't have all the answers. Not even close.
Christian Aid have been doing this for over 70 years and in that time we've tried a dizzying array of different ways to alleviate and ultimately end world poverty. We've worked with incredible organisations on the ground in the poorest countries in the world. We've advocated for systemic change at the highest levels. We've taken to the streets, knocked on doors and clicked through thousands of powerpoint slides in our quest to make a difference.
Some of it worked beautifully.
Other things haven't worked out the way we hoped at all.
But the hardest pill to swallow is that the initiatives that started off as rock star ideas slowly dwindled into redundancy. Sometimes it's hard to face the fact that something just doesn't work anymore.
Let's look at a classic example. Throughout the 80s and 90s it became standard practice to show pictures of African people in great distress. We've all seen pictures and video footage of swollen bellies and emaciated bodies. The message came through loud and clear.
'These people need our help. We can't stand idly by.'
This imagery was used by everyone from Live Aid to Comic Relief to some of our own TV fundraising. The reason being that it worked. The money came pouring in and it was duly spent saving lives and building better futures for whole communities.
But at what cost?
The ubiquity of such images on our screens and on posters and billboards had and continues to have a toxic effect on our perceptions. It homogenised a whole continent. It cast Africans principally as victims and lost causes. It ignored the vast, mind-boggling complexity of 54 sovereign nations, each with their own traditions, histories and economies.
So yeah, we get things wrong. Like I said, we don't have all the answers.
But the world is changing in multiple interesting and paradigm-shifting ways and perhaps it's time for us, and large international development agencies like us, to just listen for a while? There are people lining up around the block to give the internet a good kicking (ironically most of them using the medium of the internet to do so) but there's no denying the potential for the kind of global collaboration it makes possible.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt famously claimed that "every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003” and even if that turned out to be a slight exaggeration, it's clear that we're accelerating forward at dizzying speeds - with so many of us pouring our creativity into the virtual space - documenting, dreaming, iterating, commenting and, yes, collaborating.
The future looks different from the past. Initiatives that worked in the 70s probably won't work in the same way now. We need to find new ways to communicate, to partner with people that need our solidarity, to fundraise, to make decisions.
As door-to-door cash collections dwindle, crowd sourcing goes from strength to strength. As sponsorship schemes are abandoned, what are the charitable implications of cryptocurrencies? As coffee mornings and jumble sales fail to pull the crowds, spaces are emerging, both online and off, to allow people to find a new sense of community and purpose.
How long before it's possible to 3D print new houses from the back of a flatbed lorry after a natural disaster? When might AI be useful in co-ordinating relief efforts or agricultural programmes? What are the implications of a young person in Ethiopia being able to communicate directly with a teenager in Manchester through inexpensive and ubiquitous video calls?
The next 50 years will be a balancing act. The climate will get worse. Our attention spans will get shorter. Resources we depend on will become scarce and prohibitively expensive. But on the other hand, medical science will continue to advance. Diseases will be eliminated. And there'll be massive leaps forward in technology that we can't even conceive of at this point but that will have the same impact on our lives as the invention of the printing press, the internet and smart phones.
Will we keep doing what we've always done for as long as we can? Or will we have the presence of mind to step sideways into the unknown and the untested in the hope of forging something new?