Authentic storytelling is now a priority for us

A profile picture of Rose Caldwell
Rose Caldwell CEO of Plan International UK and Chair of IBT 25th April 2023
A picture of attendees of a Pledge for Change meeting in Nairobi

Pledge for Change meeting in Nairobi

At a recent meeting in Nairobi of the Pledge for Change signatories, the group agreed that authentic storytelling – putting local people at the centre of the story – would be one of their priorities. Rose Caldwell, Chair of IBT and CEO of Plan International UK, explains why.

The past decade has seen growing awareness in international non-governmental organisations (INGOSs) of the need for reform in international aid. While money, decision-making and power are concentrated in organisations based in the Global North, local actors are effectively blocked from accessing direct funding and leadership opportunities, deprived of the chance to lead on development in their own communities.

This patriarchal approach is problematic for a number of reasons. The model entrenches the ‘othering’ of recipients of aid, and the idea that there are those that ‘help’ and those who ‘need help’ (which, it could be argued, is evidence of the racism embedded in the model). It also undermines the very development we seek to support, by smothering the growth of civil society in the Global South.

This power imbalance and hierarchy can be traced back to colonialism, and the idea that ‘the powers that be’ in the wealthy, developed Global North, are somehow better placed to make decisions about how and where aid should be directed in the ‘under-developed’ Global South. It is a system that reflects neither our common humanity nor the solidarity that we espouse as INGOs.

While concerns around these issues are not new, beyond the increased usage of terms like ‘localisation’ and ‘decolonisation’, we have yet to see meaningful change. 

What is Pledge for Change?

Convened by Degan Ali, Executive Director of Adeso, a small group of INGOs met in 2020 to discuss how to move beyond the rhetoric and take meaningful action to shift power, money and decision making to the places and people receiving aid. 

Our aim is to build a stronger aid ecosystem, based on the principles of humility, self-determination, and equality.

 We agreed three core pledges:

  • Equitable Partnerships This will be our default approach by 2030 and we will prioritise and value the leadership of national and local actors and invest in making partners stronger and more sustainable.
  • Authentic storytelling We will use our platforms to show people’s strength and amplify their stories by putting local people at the centre of the story. Our communications will reflect our commitments to anti-racism, locally led initiatives, gender equality and equitable partnerships.
  • Influencing wider change We will advance our goals by explaining the pledge to our staff, peers, supporters, and donors and urging them to support and join us.

What does authentic storytelling mean to us at Plan International?

We start by acknowledging that sometimes the stories we tell as INGOs can, inadvertently, reinforce harmful stereotypes. We must recognise that even when we want to show the harsh realities of poverty, conflict and hunger, we have a responsibility to do so in a way that does not exploit people or portray them as helpless victims. We also have a duty to ensure that media organisations that carry our content do the same.

Our aim is to move to a model where we co-produce content with local organisations and talent – putting local people at the centre of the story in a way that is respectful and representative. We’ll amplify the stories people want to tell rather than merely speaking on their behalf. We will highlight and credit partners in our communications.

To support us on this journey, we’ve put together resources to ensure that the language and imagery we use is inclusive, free from jargon, anti-racist and ethical. This will be something we will continue to review as language evolves.

We’re also keenly aware of the need for change at an individual level. In the last two years we’ve been building deeper and more honest reflections on the inherent power dynamics within our own organisation and in our partnerships with local and national organisations, through training and reflection on power, privilege, and bias. But we know there is much more to do.

We must also measure the impact of this new approach

The challenge we face, particularly with the authentic storytelling pledge, is around measurement. How can we assess if our communications and media output have become truly ‘authentic’? 

This comes back to power-dynamics. Powerful INGOs cannot decide unilaterally that our storytelling is authentic, respectful and anti-racist. Yes, we can measure our output, counting the number of pieces of media that we co-produce with local organisations, for example. However, it is only those who have historically held less power in the relationship – local and national organisations, and recipients of aid – who can assess if we have achieved the goals set out in our pledge. 

In early April, the Pledge for Change signatories along with our Global South Advisory Group met face-to-face for the first time. We agreed that Global South-based individuals and experts will hold us to account on our progress against a series of milestones on our roadmap to change.

As signatories, we’re not under any illusions about the scale of the challenge we’ve set ourselves. INGOs alone cannot overturn these long-standing imbalances and attitudes. But we can use our influence to challenge beliefs, to shift thinking and to bring donors, media organisations, academic institutions and civil society actors with us on the journey towards a fairer future and a stronger aid ecosystem.  

Rose Caldwell is CEO of Plan International UK and Chair of IBT

Register to become an IBT member and get insider access to events and media figures here.

Related Articles

View All

Keep up to date with IBT news

Non-members can sign up to our mailing list here