Speech bubbles

It’s time for the sector to unlearn and transform communications

Colonialism and marketing/branding narratives go hand in hand.

We cannot truly move forward and improve the state of the development and giving sectors today without a deeper understanding of the history. While attention is given to the devastating physical impact of Colonialism – both historically and in the present day – less attention is given to one of the key driving forces that enables colonialism to begin with.

This driving force is narrative.

In the words of Dr Martin Kornberger: “Power needs a discourse to exercise its authority, to justify itself, to universalise its values and to legitimise its doing”.

Behind the military and economic invasion, exploitation and occupation, the key drivers behind colonialism are considered to be wealth, which, ultimately, amounts to power and control. Historically, to obtain and maintain this power and reap the benefits, a narrative needed to be developed and shared among the general population to justify colonialism. In short, strategic narratives are essential precursors to wars, invasions and other acts of colonial violence.

A prominent example of this is known as the “civilising mission”. This narrative essentially sought to rewrite the horror that was colonialism and reframe it as a moral obligation for the ‘superior West’ to civilise their ‘inferior Eastern’ counterparts. Through the use of marketing, branding, symbols and stories, they were able to reach all classes of society with these messages, successfully perpetuating the powerful moral imperative that it was the “duty” of the western world to “civilise the ‘others’.”

The erasure of indigenous knowledge

Along with military invasions and the extraction of resources, this narrative to “civilise” also enabled and empowered people to justify epistemic violence: which is the term given to the act of obstructing and undermining non-Western methods or approaches to knowledge and ideas. By deeming non-western knowledge – and by extension, culture, values, ways of thinking and living – as inadequate and naive, epistemic violence aims to alter the historical and social consciousness of colonised societies by deleting all traces of the indigenous and overwriting it with something considered more appropriate.

Ultimately the narrative – the story – of the civilising mission has and continues to play a significant role in the erasure of indigenous knowledge, ideas, culture, values, practices, and ways of thinking. This epistemic violence is considered to be a form of broader symbolic violence, whereby narratives, stories and symbols harm groups of people by perpetuating stereotypes that make them a target for ill-treatment.

It’s important to reflect on what all of this means for the development sector.

Reimagining Communications in Development | Webinar

What if instead of hyper-focusing on using the right terminology of the moment, we shifted the conversation to focus on how we can communicate with more intention, reflection and create narratives that heal rather than harm? What if we took a step back, looked at the bigger picture of the change we’re trying to make and use this to guide us in the right direction, instead of stuck in a quagmire of words?

We invite members from across Bond to this Communications Working Group meeting on 22 February to help us work through these challenges together.

Join us

In the words of Professor Stuart Hall: “While you as an individual may not believe in the supremacy of the West, to talk about the relationship between the West and the Rest you must adopt a position as if you did believe it. For example, any time we use the terms “third world nation,” “modernisation,” or “globalisation,” we are positioning ourselves within the West/Rest discourse and implicit Western superiority”.

While the sector has made progress in distancing itself from terminology such as “third world nation’, wherever we see narratives that perpetuate binaries which subtly imply Western superiority, not only are we – as a sector – perpetuating colonial narratives, but we’re also perpetuating the unequal practices that these narratives enable.

Practices need to change, but why is so little progress being made?

Actions might speak louder than words, but words inspire actions.

Najite Phoenix

The language we use shapes the way we perceive different groups of people. Additionally, in our current approaches we are at a tremendous deficit and lack true diversity of thought because of how much we have undermined, underfunded, and obscured global majority scholarship, thought leadership, and paradigms – further shaping and impeding our ability to perceive without bias or prejudice. In turn, the way that we perceive people influences the way that we behave toward them. With the ongoing movement to decolonise development and philanthropy, and the sector’s racial reckoning, it can be challenging to navigate communications on these topics, and our work more generally, in an ethical and dignified way.

Centuries of symbolic violence toward global majority societies have normalised their ill-treatment. This has also been fed by a continued double standard in journalism, recently exemplified by reports on the Genocide in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, now frequently referred to as the Israel-Hamas War. Journalists are partially responsible for why we tend to care about some conflicts and communities more than others. And in this particular case, there is clear evidence of a significant difference in the language used.

Terms such as “freedom fighter” vs. terrorist or hostage vs. prisoner or “killed” vs. “died” are often used inconsistently in media reports. Ultimately, in this case, language contributes to the dehumanisation of Palestinians – influencing how we perceive the events and the affected communities, subsequently making the Genocide more acceptable. Additionally, this colonial narrative has contributed to the scepticism of the “neutrality” and “trustworthiness” of local journalists.

The impact of how we talk about different societies applies not only to formal media outlets but, by extension, to how we communicate about development and philanthropy at an initiative and organisational level. Too often, we default to the traditional way of communicating that centres on the global minority and disempowers the global majority. This contributes to the larger narrative of dehumanisation and othering. As a sector, we must bear some responsibility and take action to correct it.

If we acknowledge that dehumanising narratives lead to dehumanising practices, such as unequal practices and partnerships, we must acknowledge the importance of shifting our language and narratives to fuel and sustain a shift in policy and practice.

With that said, the nature of language is that it is not static, but rather continuously evolving. Many communications guides have been created to support a shift in language in the sector – which have been helpful. But colleagues across the sector remain confused, grappling for the “right” or “best” way to communicate.

Struggling ourselves, the Assets, Agency, and Trust consortium and the Kukuzo Uweza initiative, partnered with Decolonial X Design to find a path forward for our communications. Along with learning (and unlearning) sessions and creating spaces for these important conversations, we supported the creation of a micro toolkit that took a different approach to communications.

We asked ourselves, what if instead of hyper-focusing on using the right terminology, we shifted the conversation to focus on how we can communicate with more intention and reflection and create narratives that heal rather than harm? What if, while understanding the power of semantics, we also took a step back to think more deeply about the bigger picture of what we are trying to communicate and help the sector with a much-needed mindset shift?

There is power in the intentionality of our words and stories

Here are four values at the heart of this toolkit:

  1. Provocation over policing: As society moves towards adopting a more critical approach to the way that we communicate, we want to support this transition in a way that leads to a truly safe society for all. This means allowing for diverse opinions, non-traditional ways of thinking and difficult conversations to co-exist. With this in mind, this toolkit is designed to invite you to broaden your thinking without restricting your freedom to ‘make mistakes’ or challenge the orthodoxy.
  2. Suggestion over censorship: Having a word is helpful for suggestions for terms and words which invite both the writer and reader to view the work through a more ‘decolonial’ lens. This is not to censor but simply to provide useful suggestions, with easy-to-follow reasoning, to support your decolonising journey.
  3. Honesty over policy: Efforts to decolonise, where possible, should be intrinsically motivated because those engaged in the work truly see the value of doing. This enables the decolonising journey to be led by honest self-reflection as opposed to ‘tick-box’ exercises simply because they feel that they ‘must’. Intrinsic motivation is much more likely to lead to sustainable, long-term change.
  4. Evolution over ‘end game’: We recognise that this is a continuous learning journey requiring experimentation and flexibility. A resource should not be fixed, but rather a fluid space that is open to grow and evolve. Likewise, the information and provocations included in the space should be taken and applied with a similar level of fluidity and experimentation.

With the recognition that we want to centre justice in our communications and that there is so much more work to be done in this space, we invite you to join the Bond Communications working group for a conversation about reimagining communications and to explore the Reimagining Comms Toolkit.