Humanitarian crises caused by civil wars or natural disasters, such as in Haiti, often trigger a wave of support from us, the public. But our support raises two difficult questions: first, do our generous donations actually have the desired effect – or any positive effect? and second, what kind of evidence is available to ensure that any debate about aid is well-informed and that the people most affected are given a prominent voice?
The politics of aid were brought back into sharp focus with the recent publication in The Atlantic of "The White Savior Industrial Complex" by Teju Cole. In a trenchant piece, Cole wrote: “If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.”
To answer that question, the filmmaker Alice Smeets has pitched the idea of a documentary called Beyond Good Intentions. "The efforts and concrete results of international aid organizations in the poorest countries are almost invisible”, she argues; “To understand why, we must solicit feedback from the base”.
Smeets’ documentary will observe the effectiveness of aid in Haiti in the past as well as in the present; and people who are supposed to benefit from the aid will be at the centre of the film. Development advocates, journalists and sociologists will give feedback on the development dilemma.
One hopes that the Smeets documentary is well-supported: An inside-out perspective on aid and development issues will be a badly needed addition to what has been a one-dimensional debate among, principally, the suppliers of aid and development.
In the long run, more media content is just a start. A profound transformation in values, expectations and governance is needed if the word "development" is not to mean, at the very least, a double-edged sword.
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Beyond Good Intentions is the first film project to be pitched on Emphas.is, a new start-up platform for "Crowd Funded Visual Journalism". On Emphas.is, photojournalists pitch their projects directly to the public. Supporters are invited to back a story for a minimum contribution of $10, and thereby “ensure the issues you care about receive the in-depth coverage they deserve”.
Emphas.is is a response to a catastrophic decline in funding from mainstream media, and especially book publishers, for original photojournalism. So far, to judge by early projects that have reached their funding targets, the experiment is working. Emphas.is has also announced the launch of a book publishing programme. According to publishing director Walter Tjantele, supporters may now help make a photography book project see the light of day simply by pre-ordering a copy. Each copy will be a signed and numbered collector’s edition and is accompanied by a print.