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The agency imperative

For starters, my faith in humanity and the media has been partly restored today. The big story has shifted from viral video to the oversimplification of complicated issues, the accuracy of advocacy, and the white savior complex in aid. Really. Newspapers are taking a nuanced view of aid and advocacy. This is big.

That's Yale (soon to be Columbia) professor, and aid blogger, Chris Blattman, on the ongoing discussion about the Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video and campaign. The short film has put a glaring spotlight on some of the aid industry's deepest-seated sins--oversimplification, glossing over factual discrepancies, and throwing agency under the bus (the "white savior complex").

Agency -- in loose terms, the capacity to make decisions and act on them -- strikes close to my heart. One of the reasons I came to work here at R4D is that it seemed as though this five-year old organization had a strong sense that agency is not something to be taken lightly.

Call it local-ownership or locally-driven development or whatever your preferred jargon, agency is often the first casualty in any aid or development endeavor. There's a self-interest element to it; organizations need to demonstrate their worth to investors or donors, so they have to take credit for something or provide something for investors or donors to rally around.

The danger is that taking so much credit or rallying so convincingly can lead international aid and development groups to unwittingly trample over the real choices and consequences facing those on the ground.

No matter where you stand on the Kony 2012 video -- for the record, it seems Ugandans themselves disapprove -- there's an opportunity for communications in aid and development to further crystallize the idea in mainstream media that while outsiders can play a role in development,  historical, political, and cultural nuance requires that outsiders respect the human agency of those they hope to (not help, but) serve.

How do you or your organizations create space for agency?

Oscar Abello is senior program associate for communications at R4D