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The ethics of communication for a first time international volunteer

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

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…

 Avoid stereotypes

 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", 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. 


E-TICK online course:

The Danger of a Single Story (Ted Talk):

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