On the Rhetoric of “Developmentalism”

What is propaganda? Our guest this week started her presentation with a clip of the Kony 2012 viral video (a great example of a piece of media that makes an emotional appeal to its viewer) but distanced herself and her organization from it. She followed that with a two-hour PowerPoint laden with facts and figures—a rational argument—in support of her organization’s work.

Our guest admitted that the most efficient way for orgs in Uganda to disseminate their message was via pirated Hollywood videos. But her organization refuses to do this out of fear of retribution from copyright holders in the US. However, her org shows no compunction about violating the copyright of Ugandan artists because they have no effective recourse through Uganda’s civil courts. Whether the Ugandan artists are happy with the resulting “exposure” from the nonprofit’s work is immaterial in my mind. Our guest is paid by her organization for her work; should not the Ugandans be paid for theirs? What Ugandan is going to turn down payment for the use of their songs or videos?

It’s easy for NGOs and other “development” orgs to employ certain kinds of rhetoric, invoking words like “participatory” or “horizontal” while criticizing “top down” approaches to development work. And it’s easy for us to sit there, stare at slideshows and believe them. But should we? Does the claim make it true?

It’s also possible that our guest’s organization does amazing work that has a real, tremendous benefit on the lives of Ugandans. I simply don’t know.

Links to some topics that the presentation brought to my mind and that may be of interest:

Video Slink Uganda, an art project that relies on pirated DVDs and black market cinemas to distribute short experimental films made by African American artists.



Some media coverage of GiveDirectly, a Western-based charity that gives beneficiaries (relatively) large sums of cash to do with what they like, instead of providing services or building infrastructure.


Light Industry in Greenpoint is hosting a lecture by Felicity D. Scott on the attempt in 1976 by the UN Conference on Human Settlements to use film as an “apparatus of developmentalism geared to managing environments and populations in the Global South.”



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