Category Archives: Journalism

The Danger of A Single Story

I recently finished the novel Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I was introduced to Adichie when I came across one of her lectures titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story”. Purple Hibiscus follows the life of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old living in Nigeria.  The novel describes Kambili’s relationship with her family, friends and how the overall political/social state of Nigeria influences their existence. I found the novel beautifully descriptive, interesting and complex. Adichie was able to describe historically rooted layers of power, while intertwining them in the everyday experience of a fifteen-year-old female.  This novel was Adichie’s first, and received excellent reviews. One of the reasons this novel received such positive attention was because it created a complex narrative of Nigerian people. Rather than focusing solely on the disparity in the country, it illustrated, that similar to families from other regions, Kambilis’ family had a loving, tumultuous, contradictory relationship.

A review from the Boston Globe proclaims: ‘Adichie’s understanding of a young girl’s heart is so acute that her story ultimately rises above its setting and makes her little part of Nigeria seem as close and vivid as Eudora Welty’s Mississippi’

This review helps to outline how welcomed Adichie’s ability to convey such an identifiable narrative is from an audience that so often only receives a single narrative about African nations.

In her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, Adichie eloquently addresses the single narrative that Africans and North Americans have been receiving of ‘Africa’. Adichie recalls how reading British and American novels in her childhood subsequently shaped her own writing and made her believe people like her (Africans) could not exist in literature. She also discusses the single story of ‘poverty’, which resulted in her American roommates surprise in Adichie’s ability to speak English and the non- tribal music she listened to.

This single story that Adichie discusses is extremely relevant when reviewing North American ideas of ‘development’. As addressed in previous posts, the single form of ‘development’ recognized in North America is often the idea that  ‘the first world helps the third world’.  Adichie’s lecture speaks to this point, as she outlines how power relations and complex narratives are intertwined. While Adichie read complex stories about American and British individuals, western individuals rarely read complex stories about Africans.

She illustrates this point with the story of a student that came to her and said:

‘It was is a shame that Nigerian men are all physical abusers like the father in your novel’.

Adichie responded that she has just read a novel called American Psycho and that:  ‘It was such a shame that young Americans were all serial murderers’.

Adichie goes on to explain that she would never think one character from an American novel would define an entire population, because she had read a variety of American novels, with a variety of complex characters.  The student however had rarely come in contact with complex narratives about Africans. Adichie claims her familiarity with American stories is related to America’s position of power in the world, and ability to spread their stories/cultural products. She outlines in contrast to these complex American stories, narratives about Africans that North Americans receive, only focus on poverty and catastrophe.

This single narrative is difficult to dispute when reviewing Africa in North American news coverage, documentaries, best sellers etc. Adichie contends: ‘show a people as one thing over and over again and they become it’. North Americans understanding of individuals in the ‘third world’ has been shaped by this single story of poverty/chaos and consequently so too have our understandings of methods of development. If all we see are images and stories of poor, helpless and dying people in the ‘third world’ then of course we are going to understand in our position as a monetarily wealthy nation we should help them. Like Adichie, I do not believe denying stories of poverty and death in the ‘third world’ is the answer, but creating a more complex understanding and thus hopefully influencing ideas of development. With more complex narratives about the ‘third world’ hopefully more complex methods of development will follow.

If you have not already watched her lecture ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ I would highly recommend watching the entire video.

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Filed under Africa, Aid, Charity, Current Events, Development, How to write about Africa, International Development, Journalism, The First World, The Third World

The Giving Pledge

Recently much media attention has been given to 40 American billionaires, pledging to give away 50% of their fortune to ‘charity’. The program was the brain child of Bill and Melinda Gates. When I initially encountered this story my criticism was directed at the Billionaires I perceived as using empty pledges ( The Giving Pledge does not accept money but asks billionaires to make a moral commitment to give their fortunes to charity) to gain positive publicity. After doing more research, which led me to the Giving Pledge Website (http://givingpledge.org/), I realized my criticism should be directed not at these billionaires searching for meaning in their lives through monetary donations, but rather at the news articles lack of specifics.

The Giving Pledge website presents a profile for each individual donating their fortunes. In these profiles you can find letters written by the billionaires outlining which charity their money may be given to and why. While it seems many of the billionaires plan to give half of their future fortune to their own charities, or organizations they have personal interests in, surprise surprise, I applaud the website for offering specific details regarding these pledges. In contrast, the majority of news articles I have read seem to glorify these billionaires for giving away their money to ‘charity’, with no real details regarding where the money will go and how it will ‘help people’. Its seems the idea of providing monetary donations to ‘charity’, has become accepted as a wholly positive act, that journalists believe no explanation is needed. While this blog entry could turn into a tirade about the state of journalism, i’d rather it be a verbalization of the personal offense I take to the news coverage of the Giving Pledge and more generally how charitable donations are written about.

If ever a journalist views this blog post,  here are some specific issues I take with the coverage of the Giving Pledge/charitable donations :

  • Donating money to some charitable cause, in particularly large sums of money is not necessarily an automatically positive act (as case study please see African continent/’development’/AID money or NGOs in Haiti)
  • Details regarding where the money is going and how it will be spent, would be appreciated
  • These details do not include generalizations such as- money given to poverty, aids, the environment etc. as these details do not actually mean anything.
  • Also broad details about which organization the money will be going to, does not suffice as an explanation ie- money is going to red cross, world vision etc.

An example of details that would suffice as an explanation: Name of person, (a little bit of history about them, emphasis on bit as this should not occupy the majority of the content) is giving 15.6 million dollars to War Child. 30% of this money will be designated to administrative costs at the organization’s office in London, 50% will be used for infrastructure costs at the current program in Sierra Leonne (this will include buying raw materials to build four more onsite offices), the remaining 20% will be used to purchase technical equipment. I understand specific details may not be available for all donations, however I cannot accept that ‘some amount of money donated to some cause’ is the only information you can find, so please try harder.

I realize that these articles are merely reflective of the current state of  journalism, our educational systems,  historical understandings about charity/development etc. However, I do not think this should excuse individuals who claim it is their job to present society with information, from writing news stories that do not really mean anything.

My initial encounter with this story was through the Ottawa Citizen and I decided to write them an opinion piece, unfortunately it has not yet been published. Please find it below.

RE: Billionaires pledge fortunes to charity- At least 42 pledge to give at least half of fortune to charity

My name is Lisa and along with 42 of the richest people in the United States, I would also like to morally pledge half of my future fortune to ‘charity’. While I am may not be a billionaire yet per se, similarly to my friends Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, my pledge is being made in the future when my financial situation is bound to change. While some might say that making this pledge to ‘charity’ with no real specifics is a clever method of garnering positive publicity, they are wrong. Symbolically pledging these future funds is a means to show how much I care about the difficult issues we as a people face today. I have witnessed firsthand those less fortunate than myself, and feel a burning sensation in my heart to give these funds to some organization, to go to some cause, during sometime in the future. I do not find it necessary to identify any of these issues, as they are obvious. Being fortunate enough to address these issues with my money, I’m sure my lack of knowledge can be overlooked. Please inform Bill and Melinda that I hope to receive my membership to The Giving Pledge society and look forward to our annual meetings and dinners. Please also print a picture of my face in your newspaper with the title “ Future Billionaire to Give Away Future Fortune to a Good Cause’ (I think Good Cause has a better ring to it than Charity).  You can also quote me beside my picture saying, “ Making money is my passion, but when I am shrivelled up and can no longer enjoy it, I’d like it to go to some unfortunate people, somewhere, suffering from something so that I can make a difference’.

Thank you.

Lisa.

First Canadian to Pledge Future Fortune

Read more: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/life/Billionaires+pledge+fortunes+charity/3360996/story.html#ixzz0wDk7IlLw

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Filed under Charity, Current Events, Development, Economics, International Development, Journalism, Politics, Uncategorized