I have a challenge for you. Name all of the relief, humanitarian, or justice-oriented NGOs that you can.
Could you name a few? Good! How many of you thought of OXFAM, UNICEF, Red Cross, United Way, Amnesty International, Peace Corps, Compassion International, or World Vision? I’ll bet you were able to think of even more than these, too. Now, what do they all have in common?
If you guessed that all of them were based in a developed country in what we consider the Global North, you are right. The preponderance of the most well-known NGOs – the ones that attract our media’s attention – were formed in either the United States or Western Europe. While many of these organizations have international satellites in developing countries, every single one of the NGOs I listed, and many more I have not mentioned, are headquartered in the Global North.
Certainly this is not inherently or inevitably a bad thing, but the problem is that we are unaware of the huge number of grassroots organizations originating from the creativity, resourcefulness, and agency of those who actually benefit directly from their creation. In other words, through our dollars, prayers, energy, and attention, we are fueling the work of organizations that operate on the compassion of people in the Global North to address issues in our world – many of which take place in the Global South. However, because we are unaware of other well-organized, strategic, effective groups comprised of and led by persons in the Global South, we are essentially neglecting the opportunity to empower their work.
At risk of sounding like a broken record, the problem I wish to target in this article is the media’s coverage of stories. As hackneyed a complaint as this is, the presentation of international events and issues by our media seems to favor the drama of the occurrence over what I believe the true drama, the true hook, of the story is: the resilience and agency of the affected people to strategize and organize for their survival and thriving. I became convinced of this on my recent trip to South Africa, where I spent my time with Sizani Ngubane, the leader of a 50,000-member grassroots organization called the Rural Women’s Movement. My trip had already been booked when the outbreak of “xenophobic violence” in KwaZulu-Natal, the very area to which I was traveling, lit up our newsfeeds. On my first day with Ms. Ngubane, we discussed this violence.
“It was not even xenophobia, nor was it widespread,” Ms. Ngubane stated. “We are talking about seven individuals who tragically lost their lives, but some of them were killed under suspicious or unintentional circumstances that then got called xenophobia by the media. Seven individuals made international news when for decades the statistics of gendered violence show that every 16 seconds a woman is raped and every six days a female is killed by a male partner.”
“When we make international news for what they call xenophobia, what must the world think of us?” Ms. Ngubane murmured, staring out of the car window with passion and sadness in her eyes.
What indeed do we think of them? More importantly, what are we being asked to think by the media? What interest does the media serve by reporting on the problems of a country or region in a distorted and over-dramatized way and to the neglect of other issues?
More to my point is what the media does not cover. In my opinion, they are missing the true story, which is a story of redemption or the surprise of joy. This is what makes any story a good story, even if it ultimately ends in some tragedy. A good story is an ambivalent story, a story that shows the ups and downs of life, the good and the bad, a story that keeps you hoping until there just is no hope – and then even in the hopelessness there will remain some glimmer of beauty, of goodness, of what could be in the future, of a redemption to come. Shakespeare understood this in his tragedies, the most famous of which is perhaps Romeo and Juliet. The story leads us to the tragic and unnecessary deaths of two young lovers, but it ultimately ends with the hopefulness of reconciliation between two feuding families. British author and journalist G.K. Chesterton wrote that his conversion to the Christian faith grew out of his love of fairy tales. According to Chesterton, fairy stories always included a surprise of joy – some goodness that you did not see coming, that the events of the story or that typical logic would not lead you to anticipate as a possibility. And he saw this same paradox in the world around him. Moreover, he found that this surprise of joy in the midst of hopelessness and tragedy is explained or at least paralleled in the story of the Christ event, the story of redemption. Thus, he felt compelled to become a Christian.
The story of hope and redemption in the places where we least expect it is the most compelling story there is, compelling enough to write plays and stories about, to make films about, to cause conversions. This is the real story occuring around us, and our media oftentimes neglects it in favor of a fictionalized drama, the moral of which seems to be, “We’re victimized and violated; who will help us?” This is not the question I heard being asked by the women I interviewed on my trip. Out of my snowball sample of interview subjects, over 85% were victims of gendered violence, and the remaining percentage of women were single mothers living in poverty whose children’s fathers had abandoned them. However, none of these women are hopeless. Instead, they have organized themselves into the Rural Women’s Movement, a grassroots organization that has fought to end forced marriages and rape in rural areas, to establish community gardens to combat food insecurity in townships, to empower women economically, to create a safe space for black women in South Africa to have a voice, and now to secure land for these women and build a farm on which they can live and work. The organization, funded solely by a $200,000 grant from the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women because it lacks the exposure that other NGOs have, has had tremendous success as a grassroots organization. The term “grassroots” was coined by a politician who described this sort of organization as being born out of the soil of people’s hard experiences. This is oftentimes the best kind of education one can have about an issue, its causes, and its potential solutions. This perfectly describes the case of the Rural Women’s Movement and other responses to issues that grow out of what we often call “the Third World.” These stories of agency, power, and effective strength are the real drama, the true story. The question the survivors are asking is not, “Who will help us?” Instead, it is, “Who will see and support our success?” Who will tell the real story?
Photo courtesy of the author.