The ethics of communication for a first time international volunteer
Updated: Feb 15
Katie Lyons took part in the Nurture Africa Volunteer Programme this summer. Nurture Africa moved its programme to the online space as a result of COVID-19. Katie was tasked with exploring the world of communication.... Specifically, the flow of information that comes from the Global South and is consumed by people in the Global North.
As a starting point, we asked Katie to research the Dochas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages (link below) and to complete "E-TICK" which is an e-learning course focused upon ethical communication (link below). Over to you Katie...
Before embarking on the virtual volunteering project I definitely had a vague and generalised understanding of life in the Global South. I had never given much thought to the specific details that life in Uganda may entail as my perception was generally shaped by the ’third world country’/poverty narrative. I didn't really consider just how much this ’single-story’ of poverty and hardship had influenced my own views. This started to change when we begun this programme; when I started to think critically about these views. Whilst engaging in the zoom sessions with the Nurture Africa team, we ‘de-bunked’ many myths about Africa. The Etick course on ethical communication was very effective in supporting me to think more critically. It contains lots of great video links and blog posts sharing the voices of people from all over the Global South.
Comhlámh's online Learning Course focusing on Ethical Coomunication was a great support
Generalisation is not always a negative thing. Our brains use it constantly to help us process
information and work more efficiently. This causes us to create an unconscious bias based
on our upbringing, education, the media we consume and the people that we are
surrounded by and interact with. However, in order to prevent these generalisations developing into potentially harmful stereotypes, prejudices or discriminatory actions, it is important to recognise them and acknowledge the multitude of external factors that influence and potentially may limit our understanding. An example in this case would be use of the term third world country. When I sat down to think about, the term itself is very
vague to me. Some research led me to understand that it actually originated post-WW2 and was used to denote countries that were neither pro-Western capitalism (first world) nor pro-Soviet socialism (second world) during the Cold War. There is strong arguement that it uncomfortably perpetuates a hierarchal categorisation of the world’s countries and generalises the global South as all poor, which is simply not true.
Although it may be a bit early for Christmas songs, the infamous Band aid 1984 hit of ‘Do they Know it’s Christmas?’ is awash with generalisations.
It was created as a charity appeal for the Ethiopian Famine that occurred from 1983-1985. The money raised from the single combined with the efforts of the ‘Live Aid’ concerts raised over £150million. What could possibly be uncomfortable about that? Maybe take another look at the video and listen closely to the lyrics, I’m sure you’ll hear some things you never noticed before.
Although the campaign raised so much money, I can’t help but wonder about the negative stereotypes that are reinforced every Christmas season by the lyrics of the song.
Lets take a closer look at those lyrics….
1) “There won’t be snow in Africa.....”
Giraffes in the snow in the Karoo region of South Africa. Photograph: Kitty Viljoen
2) "Where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow"
The River Nile at Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
The Nile River is the longest river in the world, flowing through or along the border of 11 other African countries. Approximately 20 countries on the continent have a tropical climate which includes an abundance of greenery, rainfall and are rich in bio-diversity.
These generalisations about ‘Africa’, describing it as ‘a world of dread and fear’ where
‘nothing ever grows’ and declaring to the Western world ‘thank God it’s them instead of
you’ , continually reinforces these negative media stereotypes that the continent is a
helpless place full of poor victims waiting to be saved.
The lyrics of the song place focus solely on hunger and deprivation, further perpetuating the
myth that poverty is a natural phenomenon, rather than the result of many broader social,
economic and political factors. This reduces the problem to one that can be solved just by
money. Of course, fundraising is an important part of any NGO’s work, and without money
their invaluable work simply could not be done. But in order to raise more money, is it
worth disregarding the respect, dignity and justice of a whole nation of people?
Have a look at this ‘Africa for Norway appeal’ that was launched in 2018 by a group of
musicians in South Africa. You may see some resemblances to the Band Aid video, with a turning of the tables!
The ‘single story’ of Norway told in this video is that it is always cold. But of course, Norway
is and should be known for many other things. The same applies to African countries.
Read more about the brains behind the campaign here:
The Dochas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages
In order to combat the perpetuation of these potentially harmful stereotypes Dóchas
(the Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations (NGOs)) created a
code of conduct on images and messages in 2007. The aim of the code is to provide
guidelines for organisations to refer to when designing and implicating their public
Choices of images and messages will be based on the paramount principles of…
Respect for the dignity of the people concerned
Belief in the equality of all people
Acceptance of the need to promote fairness, solidarity and justice
By adopting these principles, Dóchas aims to raise the standards and improve development
NGOs public communication practices whilst improving public confidence in the organisations.
To achieve these principles, the code asks organisations to…
Represent the full complexity of situations
Seek permission of all the people portrayed
However, this does not mean providing all positive or negative views. Replacing stereotypes
does not challenge them or construct more complex alternatives. Instead, the code asks the
organisations to strive to present a realistic portrayal of the lives of people concerned, and
the role that the NGO plays in them.
The International Volunteer
When preparing to volunteer abroad, it is important to realise that we now become the
storyteller. The images and posts that we make, and the experiences that we describe to
the people around us, will all help to shape their understanding of the place, people and
situation that we share. Therefore, it is paramount that volunteers comply with the
principles of the code, particularly when posting on social media.
Judithe Registre, the founder of the NGO Inclusivus, wrote an article titled Why We Should
Avoid Becoming “the Voice of the Voiceless”, in which she describes her experiences as an
overseas volunteer, and the importance of respecting and uplifting the voices of those
actually living the situation rather than trying to tell their story for them. The fact is that no one is voiceless, but our societies are not built to hear the voices of
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche in her Ted talk titled "The Danger of a Single Story", https://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg said ‘show a people as one thing over and over again… and that is what they become’.
In conclusion, there is no quick or perfect solution to uphold the code and prevent harmful
stereotypes, as each situation is entirely unique and complex. Although many things are
done with the best intentions, they may not always be the best solution. But, we can all play
our small part in the fight for justice and representation for all people and hopefully help to
start a dialogue, encouraging other people to do the same by thinking critically about the
communications we create and consume, and continually challenge the generalisations that
we may uphold.
I now feel much better prepared to experience overseas volunteering since exploring the issues of ethical communications. And these enlightenments I have been able to apply to so many more situations where I’ve had generalised views. Being aware of the power of the media on our subconscious understanding is a somewhat overwhelming realisation. But having the ability to think critically and even just become aware of all of the voices that surround us, not just the ones that shout the loudest, is a great place to start and has really helped me to expanded my knowledge and understanding of the world around us.
Dochas Code of Conduct on Images and Messages: https://dochas.ie/sites/default/files/Illustrative_Guide_to_the_Dochas_Code_of_Conduct_on_Images_and_Messages.pdf
E-TICK online course: https://ethicalcommuncation.org
The Danger of a Single Story (Ted Talk): https://youtu.be/D9Ihs241zeg