When UNICEF needed photos from Bolivia, India, Jordan, Malawi, Myanmar and Niger to illustrate their clean-water campaign, did they hire local photographers in each of those countries?

No, they engaged an Australian man living in New York.

The photographer they chose was the award-winning Ashley Gilbertson, at VII Photo Agency, who produced good work for their “#Wateris: a family affair” campaign. In my opinion, however, that’s no excuse for UNICEF hiring him rather than local photographers in each country.

But that’s how most Western aid agencies work. Three years later, UNICEF published “Crisis in the Central African Republic” (shown at top). Every single photo is tagged “Gilbertson VII Photo”.

Five reports from U.N. agencies and Western NGOs show life in the global South. Why don’t they use photographers who live there?

It’s not just UNICEF. The strip aboveshows reports published (often jointly) by World Vision, Save the Children, Plan International, ChildFund, and W.H.O., as well as UNICEF. The first report is titled Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017; Special focus on inequalities. It was published by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The cover photograph is by an Italian man.

In these five reports, U.N. agencies and international NGOs tell how they help people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But the cover photos (and often most or all of the photos inside) were taken by Americans and Western Europeans.

If these organizations are concerned about inequalities, why don’t they make it a policy to always hire local talent in the countries they wish to help?

It seems like a no-brainer. Hiring local photographers would provide jobs where jobs are needed. It would help people in the global South to build their resumes and develop stronger skills. It would reward those who have invested in doing so. It would mean that aid money which is supposed to help these countries, would actually go into them without immediately bouncing back out. It would show respect for the local people, rather than treating them merely as a population in need of help.

Aid agencies typically hire local staff only for low- and mid-level positions. That’s an important story, but a different one. Here, I’m asking: Why do they so often pass up local talent when they need video work, graphic designers, and photographers, in favor of Westerners?

For some jobs, such as a big video project, they may argue that the skills needed aren’t available locally. Given the poor state of public education in most of these countries – much of which is a result of policies pushed by the U.N. – there may be some validity to this. But freezing out locals is not going to improve the situation, it simply creates greater inequality. At the very least, these agencies should insist on local involvement as much as possible. They do not.

In the case of photography, there’s simply no good excuse. Every country has photographers able to produce excellent work… and they’ll charge less than a globe-trotting Westerner. Why does the aid industry give so many assignments — especially the bigger ones with higher pay and travel opportunities and which are crucial for building up resumes — to Westerners?

Several factors are clearly at work.

First, it’s easier. Aid workers usually only stay in a country for one or two years. They socialize with other ex-pats, who often make a comfortable living by providing free-lance services to NGOs. Nurturing these connections comes naturally, and will benefit everybody’s career and social life.

Furthermore, the aid industry comes with an Us-and-Them mindset. We are the ones with answers, and we’re paid to help. They are the ones who need our help; they’ll be the subject of our photos. In this ethos, Westerners are the first people considered for any skilled job.

And there is a bias, whatever you wish to call it. The Western aid worker is more comfortable working with other Westerners. There are cultural, and often language, differences if you work with local talent. Aid workers may, without even consciously thinking about it, assume that people like themselves will do a better job.

But while we might understand all this, that doesn’t excuse it. Karma colonialism is the nicest term we can think of for this behavior.

Twitter comments

The tweet which announced this story has generated some lively commentary. Here are highlights.

Taremwa karakire, @TaremwaD: I relate to this story. I was once part of a USAID project in Uganda where they always hired photographers all the way from USA to come and document the project.

Learning counsel, @Its_Kimani: The writer dares not say the reasons as: (1) Perpetuating the White saviour complex; (2) Reinforcement of racist stereotypes by having people not tell their own story.

[Author replies: I decided it was more effective to let readers draw their own conclusions on this. I don’t know if that makes me a coward, or a diplomat. You, sir, are neither. Thanks for commenting.]

RazorRibbon, @SpacemanAp: Because their photographer will capture Africa in the worse light possible and keep perpetuating the image of Africa they want the world to see and believe as per their real mission.

[Author replies: This is an important dynamic, and I missed it in the story. Several readers made similar comments, such as the next couple. Thank you, all.]

Mana, @Jun1orm: A local photographer will do his best to make his community show the best it has to offer while a foreign one will do exactly what they want.

iNk, @nwaoma007: The Australian man knows that his brief is to tell a specific facet of the story which promotes the narrative UNICEF wants to disseminate.

Khanyi, @choolwekm: It seems to me they want to maintain the status quo to remain relevant.

Sunflower, @TalelovesSuga: This is why I don’t like it when a white person points a camera at me… You can find yourself on a UNICEF poster.

Ruby, @Oghenerume9: I had always known this in my heart but it was confirmed when I was working for one NGO and actually saw with my eyes that it was all fraud. Life has been worse for the poor in developing countries since more and more NGO’s came around

O&B, @The44Families: This is business people. You really believe UNICEF and Co want equality and self sufficiency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America?

Say they succeed is their purported goals, what then will be the reason(s) to keep them around?

They need the needy to be relevant

Takor, @Takor61802157: Foreign bodies talk negative things about third world countries, they don’t take photos of the good things in third world countries only negative ones.

david pearce, @davidpe11188501: A local head of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] told me that the children learn to cry on command for foreign visitors, esp photographers. Otherwise, the children look and act quite normally. They need crying children to sell their product.

[Author adds: In her book The Crisis Caravan, Dutch journalist Linda Polman records many stories of the quest for heart-rending photos. Of a camp for amputees in Sierra Leone, she writes: “Like pit bulls in a kindergarten, journalists from all over the world pounced on the story of the amputees. From CNN and the New York Times to Dutch public television and the South China Morning Post, they all managed to find Murray Town Camp. ‘It’s never been so easy to collect money as it is with the pictures of these poor devils,’ said an INGO staff member in Freetown.”]

Faye Pixie, @PixieFaye: The Us and Them thing is so true. Even if some of these organizations are trying to be benign, they’re still being colonialists about our countries. Photography is inherently biased as you choose what you want to photograph to “spread awareness”.

Benson Ndehi, @BNdehi: I once had a small gig with UNICEF in Nairobi. The waste was unbelievable. Everyone had a network printer, for example.

[Author adds: In his book Another Quiet American, Brett Dakin tells of when he was working in a government tourism office that got support from the U.N. Development Programme. One day the UNDP sent them a new printer, which could do everything: Print in color, collate, and bind. They had never asked for it, didn’t need it, and never figured out how to use it, so it sat unused. He writes, “The UNDP had simply decided to dump a few thousand dollars of gear on the NTA. Whether or not it would be of use was immaterial.”

Related stories

Left: The Shadow Government. UNICEF produces reports — not always good ones! — for weak governments to publish as their own. This ends up being even worse than it sounds.

Right: Cash transfers. Why not just give aid funds directly to the people you want to help? This approach has been done, results have been studied — and it proves quite effective.
Left: Pygmalion and Golem. U.S. Navy crew builds a school in Djibouti. That seems nice. But it sends a deeply harmful message: “You can’t do anything without our help.”

Right: Unicef needs the “needy.” This photo is from a Unicef fundraising appeal for “needy families.” It is the very opposite of the “empowerment” that they talk about.

Other stories of interest

Left: The new colonialism. Is the West really trying to impose a new form of colonialism? Many people have made the suggestion. Pope Francis, for example.

Right: World Vision undermines local economies by giving away leftover merchandise where it’s not needed. It makes no sense — until you understand the financial incentives.
Left: Cellphones and literacy. UNESCO took money from big tech to publish a deceitful report that benefited the company that gave it the money. If an African president had done that, what would we call it?

Right: What would make a better future? There are ways that wealthier countries can genuinely help others, if they want to. Give the aid money directly to the poor, for example. Here are ideas.

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