On Communications, Ethics, and Respect

The way we talk about our experiences in the field, local organizations and communities in the developing world, and the images we decide to share on our websites and social media, can all shape the way we – and our audiences – view the world.

During our InterACT trip to Rwanda in February 2020, our delegation visited Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. Photo Credit: Yael Shapira.

OLAM is an organization committed to constantly learning and growing. As part of our values, we bring together individuals and organizations with different motivations around a shared commitment to improve the quality and integrity of our work with vulnerable communities in the developing world.

Inspired by recent international anti-racism work, our team decided to bring this conversation back to the OLAM community. We began reflecting on broader issues of privilege that exist in the international development, global service, and humanitarian aid sectors. We encouraged our members to share examples of racism, saviorism, and power dynamics from their own experiences in the field, and together, started to look for ways to address these issues. As a step in this process, we just recently organized a webinar ‘Ethical Approaches to Development’ with JW3 featuring Jean-Claude (JC) Nkulikiyimfura from Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Mireille Flores from World Jewish Relief, and Hannah Gaventa, an individual practitioner member of OLAM who currently works for Palladium.

Some of the main issues our community raised had to do with communications: The way we talk about our experiences in the field, local organizations and communities in the developing world, and the images we decide to share on our websites and social media, can all shape the way we – and our audiences – view the world. 

Time and again, people talked about the problematic way that communications can reinforce and perpetuate power dynamics and stereotypes: We’ve all seen photos of ‘starving black African children’ or ‘poor women’ in a remote Indian village without any context or framing of local challenges. We’ve all seen photos of overseas volunteers posing with children on social media, some even going as far as using these photos on their dating profiles. Such images reinforce a narrative of ‘they (local community members) are weak, we (overseas volunteers, donors, etc.) are helping them,’ instead of portraying communities living in the developing world in dignifying and respectful ways, instead of sharing stories of local leadership and resilience. 

Decisions about which images and language to use are not always clear-cut, and ensuring thoughtful and ethical communications is not easy, but a continuous learning process. Looking back to some of OLAM’s communications, we recognize that we have made some mistakes in the past. And we will likely make mistakes in the future! But we are committed to constantly working to improve our communications. As a step in this process, we have written and adopted a new ethical communications policy. 

During our InterACT trip to Rwanda in February 2020, our delegation visited Energiya Global, one of OLAM’s partner organizations. Photo Credit: Yael Shapira.

Here are some core principles of our policy:

  • Dignity and Respect 

During one of our last team meetings, we debated over what steps we should be taking to make sure that we portray communities in dignifying and respectful ways. How can we ensure that the images we use reflect the reality of people’s situation, instead of accentuating their vulnerability or powerlessness? We decided that a step to achieve this is to commit to sharing images with accurate and appropriate contextual information. This way, our audiences can fully understand the situation and challenges of different communities, instead of making assumptions and, eventually, perpetuating stereotypes. As another effort, we will avoid sharing images taken in sensitive, vulnerable situations and locations, such as hospitals and health clinics. 

  • Avoiding Saviourism

Our community raised multiple times the challenge of avoiding portraying a saviorism narrative. Reflecting on this issue, I looked at my own photos from a recent volunteering trip in Nepal. In one of the photos, I am at the center, surrounded by children from the village I was working in. And I started to ask myself: What do people think when seeing this photo? Why am I sharing this photo? Who am I bringing the attention to? Such photos display clear power dynamics, and reinforce the narrative of ‘they (local community members) are weak, we (overseas volunteers, donors, etc.) are helping them’ mentioned above. In our policy, we decided to step away from such images, to always pay attention to who is the focus in the images we share/who’s the hero of the story we’re telling, and to make sure that the photos/videos we use show a clear balance between local communities and volunteers/donors/staff. Check out Radi-Aid’s social media guide for more information on this topic!

  • Consent 

Showing respect to local communities includes ensuring that we have people’s permission to share their photos on our websites/social media platforms. We stated in our policy that, before posting any images, we want to make sure that the people portrayed have given their full informed consent, and understand how the images could be used. For that reason, we have also decided to avoid sharing photos of children because they might not understand the implications of having their photo shared on social media. Read more about gaining informed consent here

  • Amplifying local voices

We feel a deep sense of humility towards the wisdom and experience of local communities in the developing world. As such, another important element of our policy is that, instead of focusing only on local challenges and needs, we decided to prioritize amplifying voices from the ground, highlighting the strengths and capabilities of local communities, and sharing their stories of resilience and leadership. 

Read our full ethical communications policy here. We will continue working on improving our policy, reflecting on the feedback we will receive. Please send us your comments (deborah@olamtogether.org)! Many thanks to Mickey-Noam Alon, Humanitarian Communications Advisor and our “Do No Harm” speaker for his guidance in this process.

While we decided to start focusing on communications, OLAM’s work on anti-racism within the international development/humanitarian aid/global service sectors is an ongoing process that we are exploring in a multitude of ways. Stay tuned for more updates!