Case Study Asha

To illustrate and exemplify the relationship between power and representation in development critique, this section analyses a television commercial for a major international non-governmental organization. The advert starts by showing a poverty-stricken girl, emaciated, gaunt, with a distant glazed look on her face. The narrator, an English male, reads

Asha would ask you something if she could. She’d ask you to save her life, but she’s too exhausted. She’s starving. She’d look you in the eye; she’d ask again if she thought someone, somewhere had the heart to help.

Over footage of other starving children, accompanied by a slow, melancholy piano, the narrator continues:

Please, help a child like Asha right now. We know what it takes to save a child’s life. The solutions are simple, but we need your help . . . Asha can’t ask you, but we can. Please will you stop children dying?

While Asha’s story provokes feelings of pity, compassion and perhaps anger, disgust or guilt, these immediate reactions obscure deeper critical inquiry. The advert describes Asha’s plight in great detail, but it leaves many other questions unanswered. First, where does Asha live? To many viewers, Asha’s surroundings and skin colour suggest somewhere in Africa, but by leaving this unstated the advert places her in a vague, stereotypical Third World context. Second, why is she starving? Is it due to political oppression, or perhaps fluctuations in food prices caused by global markets? By not addressing this, the advert suggests this condition is an intrinsic or inevitable feature of living conditions in the ‘Third World’. Even Asha’s name raises certain questions: would the advert have the same impact if she were called Susan or Jennifer?

What is clear is that Asha’s life is deficient, even pitiable in nearly every respect, but everything else is vague and unstated. Furthermore, the audience is continually reminded that Asha cannot speak for herself; instead, we must rely on the narrator to describe her plight. Thus, in this relationship the narrator (and by extension the development organization), hold all the power: they are able to put forward a representation that is remarkably one-sided: poverty is focused upon to the exclusion of all else.

Through this advert, one clearly sees the issues raised by poststructuralists such as Escobar (1995). Representation is asymmetric: the object of development (Asha) is represented by the narrator, who grounds his authority in knowledge (‘We know what it takes to save a child’s life’). As Trudell (2009) notes, the primary feature of the development discourse is deficiency, often to the exclusion of all else. Thus, Asha is described only in terms of her problems and deficits. According to poststructuralists, the claim to save children like Asha is ultimately bankrupt; instead the concept of development is used as a guide to perpetuate a relationship of power and control.

How are issues of poverty and development portrayed in the media? How does this reflect upon the international development sector as a whole?