In November 2011 I went to Hôtel de Ville in Paris to see an exhibit titled “A New Perspective on the South.” It was organized by Agence Française de Developpement (AFD), a non-profit French development agency, to showcase the results of projects with partner organizations throughout the global south. I had seen it promoted in newspapers, on the Métro, and in public spaces around town, and was curious about it because the tales we tell ourselves about the world are deeply important, sociologically speaking. Whether we encounter them in textbooks, museums, televisions shows and films, in church sermons, in conversation with our families, in theater and literature, or increasingly, in the digital world via sites like Facebook and Twitter, narratives give us a script that we use to make sense of the world. They provide logics for fitting people into roles; they teach us about heroes and villains, victims and saviors, and right and wrong. They help us understand who we are as people, and how we fit into the greater scheme of things. In short, narratives play a big and important role in our lives. So, armed with an umbrella on a rainy afternoon, I arrived at the open-air exhibit to see what the French narrative of development looks like.
On the plaza in front of the domineering Hôtel de Ville, the seat of city governance, I found the exhibit in the form of seven cubic clusters. Each featured between fifteen and twenty large photographs taken by a Magnum photographer, and focused on development efforts in one place. The photos were paired with narrative description of the problems that plague the region, the response of AFD and local partner organizations, and the achievements of implemented projects and programs.
Education of the Parisian public about the work of AFD seemed to be the goal of the exhibit. Docents ready to answer questions surrounded the installation, and they distributed a questionnaire posed as a “game” that one could play while viewing the exhibit. The questionnaire emphasized the key impact statements that the exhibit was designed to leave in the minds of visitors: the extent of problems, and the achievements of AFD, in facts and figures. By viewing the exhibit I learned the following about problems and solutions in the global south.
Medellín, Colombia, has been plagued by violence and insecurity in recent decades due to overcrowding after many people fled guerilla warfare in the countryside. Overcrowding has squeezed resources and created conditions for crime and violence. As a solution, AFD helped fund the building of the Metrocable system which ferries people with gondolas in and out of mountainous suburban areas. The system allows for business and community growth outside of the central city. Rates of violence have fallen drastically, which promises to grow the city’s tourism industry.
In Guinea, in western Africa, rice farmers live in poverty despite the fact that rice is the base of the local diet. To abate this problem, local agencies have promoted an organic method of cultivation that relies on a traditional system of using both sea and fresh water to irrigate paddies. Necessary new water systems were installed with the help of funding from AFD. The organization also funded development of sea salt cultivation. As a result of these changes, rice production has tripled, and 50,000 people are employed in a sustainable manner, and rice production no longer endangers mangrove forests.
Mother mortality related to childbirth in Mauritania due to poor health care, lack of healthcare personnel, and cost of care, is a vast problem. To reduce deaths of women during and after childbirth, the government created a program to provide low-cost obstetric risk insurance (ORI). After it was proven successful in a small area, AFD worked with the government to expand the program throughout the country. For the cost of about 22 USD women receive pre-natal care, birthing assistance in a health clinic, and family planning advice. This program significantly reduces the cost of care and thus makes it available to most women. About 80 percent of women in areas where it is offered have joined the program, and as a result maternal mortality has fallen by 50 percent. The government is now implementing the program as a public health policy. Problems and solutions in the Palestinian territories, Burkina Fasso, Cambodia, and Indonesia were also featured in the exhibit.
Photos of those who live in these places–who were effected by the problems, and who now benefit from the solutions–are the focus of the exhibit. The story of the Metrocable in Medellín is told with photos of daily life below the cables and around the gondola stations. They reveal crowded hillside neighborhoods and shantytowns with obvious signs of poverty and depressed economies. But also, they showcase kids at play and at school, and remembrances of those lost to cartel-related violence.
The photographic tale of expansion of rice production in Guinea focuses on agricultural labor and water management, but also includes scenes from daily life in the villages. Those who visit the exhibit encounter a family gathered for a portrait in a home made of concrete; men seated on the floor and gathered around a common plate of rice and smoked fish; women roasting palm nuts for oil extraction; men and women planting, harvesting, and processing rice for distribution; and a group of men and women gathered for a meeting of producers.
The battle against mother mortality in Mauritania is graphic and shocking in its photographic representation. Benign images include women awaiting obstetric consultation, walking with children, and carrying the youngest through barren, sand-blown villages. Most photos though depict the work of the project, and show naked women on birthing and operating tables during and after Cesarean and vaginal births, a bloodied infant in doctor’s hands just extracted surgically from the womb, and a woman lying on a table after suffering a still birth and a hemorrhage. The photos reveal that this work is done with meager resources, and in facilities that would not meet Western sanitation standards.
As a sociologist, what I look for when examining a narrative is how the tale is told, from whose perspective, and what is excluded in the process of telling it. Something I have noticed about typical narratives of development in the U.S. is the placement of problems in the communities discussed, as opposed to residing within a troubled global social system that creates financial and lifestyle benefits for some, and gross economic inequality and suffering for others. Another mainstay of popular development narratives is the casting of those in the global south as helpless victims, and development agencies, and often corporations and consumers too, as saviors who set things right. The story told by “A New Perspective on the South” is no different. It is told from the perspective of the developers, just as the popular story of the global south and east has been written by the north and west for centuries.
Curiously, those who crafted the exhibit seem to believe that they are offering a new way of looking at the south and its people. Perhaps I am missing it, but I am unable to identify what is new about this perspective. Rather, I took away from this exhibit the persistent power of popular narratives. The tale of development today differs very little from that told during the colonial era, yet those who created the exhibit believe they have broken from tradition. Instead, they show how deeply internalized narrative structures are, and the heavy hand they play in framing how we see problems and conceptualize solutions. Far from new, the perspective offered by this exhibit is nothing if not predictable. The popular narrative of development is a pattern of representation that is burned in our collective consciousness, repeated over centuries, and reproduced en masse today.
The problem with popular tales is that they crowd out the space for those less often told, like, for instance, those told from the perspective of those about whom we tell them. The fallacy of the popular narrative is revealed when the script is flipped, and the story told from the other point of view. This week I attended a screening at a festival of ethnographic film, Trente Ans Trente Films (Thirty Years, Thirty Films). Cannibal Tours, a documentary released in 1988 by Dennis O’Rourke, turns the ethnographic lens from the oft studied and toured inhabitants of New Guinea to the wealthy white tourists who journey to the island for a taste of “exotic” and “savage” life. Simply by switching focus from studied to studier, and thus showcasing the perspective of the people of New Guinea, a searing critique of white privilege and superiority emerges. The viewer, instead of seeing the inhabitants of New Guinea as exotic, sees the tourists as absurd. This short clip from the film demonstrates this.
I recently viewed another photo exhibit that breaks from the traditional narrative of development, and offers a refreshingly different tale. The exhibit at le Petit Palais, Elles Changent l’Inde, or “Women Changing India,” also consists of the work of Magnum photographers, and shows how women are changing Indian society for the better. In particular, it reveals how women and girls are moving beyond gendered social expectations. To date the exhibit has been presented in major cities in India, Milan, London, Brussels, and now, Paris.
One major difference between this exhibit and “A New Perspective on the South” is that it depicts women engaged in all aspects of daily life, not just those which demonstrate the results of a particular development program. Another is that the women and girls photographed are depicted as agents of change in their communities, rather than as helpless victims who are changed by the actions of outsiders. Whether they are producing goods for their local economies; working in local, regional, and national politics; running banks that fund small businesses run by women; driving taxis that are guaranteed as safe for women; or litigating cases in the supreme court of India, they are the ones addressing social and economic problems, and making positive change.
While both of these exhibits showcase development efforts that are structurally similar–French organizations give money and partner with local organizations to support projects–the narrative presented by each is decidedly different. This difference reveals the power of point-of-view to frame, and thus determine the content of a narrative. Those who visit “Women Changing India” are left with a very different tale of the global south and its people than do those who visit the exhibit at Hôtel de Ville. They see images like the one at left, which depicts a meeting of KMVS, a federation of women in the rural region of Kutch in Gujarat, who defend the rights of garbage collectors, and are engaged in many other efforts to empower women.
The tales we tell ourselves about the world matter. They matter very much. They frame how we see problems, and shape the universe of possible solutions. To the extent that we keep retelling the same tales, they limit possible solutions. Progress requires creative thinking, and it is possible that many of us in the global north are so limited by the narratives we know that we are unable to imagine solutions that do not repeat the mistakes of the past. We can learn a lot, about the world and about ourselves, when we listen to the tales less often told. It is high time we give them a listen, and expand our collective consciousness, so that solutions we cannot yet imagine can take root and grow.