#PowerShifts Resources: Reclaiming Representation

May 20, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

This new stream of resources that we’ll be posting on FP2P will include links to stories and projects that can engage us in further reflection about the many blindspots involved in development research and practice, as well as ideas to make those power shifts happen at every level.

To those involved in development practice, reflection on these topics might sound irrelevant, or excessive, next to the hard task of getting things done. And to those thinking and writing about development, it might seem like they’ve got it covered.

But in both cases, there’s increasingly more reasons to come back to these blindspots as a very basic starting point to move towards more respectful ways of working.

This week, I’ve focused the resources on reclaiming representation, tackling a very sticky blindspot that covers the ways in which we choose to communicate, and which knowledge(s) is/are privileged in this process.

Other ways of telling stories

Rethinking (and changing) the way we communicate about “development issues” is part of the journey of shifting narratives, and shifting the power.

“If we are serious about shifting the world and ending global poverty and inequality, then how can we lack the imagination to also shift people’s mindsets?”

Sisonke Msimang

To get started with deconstructing development communications, here’s a great interview with Sisonke Msimang. She dissects patterns of storytelling that this sector has relied on for far too long (such as reproducing development tropes through PR exercises) and urges a shift towards communications based on the experiences, and language, of the very people those stories belong to.

So, how can organizations tell stories differently? “The steps reveal themselves once you get underneath the skin of politics. A lot of what I find is missing in development organizations is a particular politics around race, colonialism, and understanding power and hierarchy within the systems that we exist in.”

Storytelling in their own hands

People telling their own stories is always a million times more powerful than the digestible and translated version of that reality.

Watch and listen to this poetic expedition between two Indigenous poets, Kathy Jetnil-Kijner from the Marshall Islands and Aka Niviâna from Greenland, connecting their experiences of climate violence in their respective islands. Written and recited atop a melting glacier, it’s a stunning example of how words and visuals can be reclaimed to capture the shared struggles and resilience of communities around the world.

Here’s another really interesting communications initiative: a collective creation process that culminated in Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate ChangeAgam (drawing from Tagalog terms for ‘memory’ and ‘uncertainty’) explored new ways of speaking about and communicating the challenges Filipinos face with a rapidly changing environment. “We needed to talk with people rather than at them”. So the writers were given a list of banned words: climate change jargon and buzzwords that they were not allowed to use in their contributions. This led to lyrical, poetic, at times prophetic writing that anyone and everyone can connect to.


And it’s not just who is talking, but how we’re talking

Words make worlds. As part of Power Shifts, we will be updating FP2P’s editorial guidelines too, and we’ll be including a list of terms we want (/need) to move away from, as well as alternatives to use. Sneak peak examples that still fail to disappear: ‘Third World’ (really, stop saying it), and its more recent cousin, ‘developing countries’ (still really colonial).

Comment below if you have any suggestions on what terms to include in order to continue stripping our language of hierarchies, assumptions and unwanted power dynamics.


What do we mean by ‘knowledge’?

“We live in a world with many ways of knowing” is the first line of this video which follows Jim Enote, a Zuni farmer, who has recurred to ‘counter-mapping’ as a tool to transform understandings of the land, and hence, Indigenous land rights. Here, storytelling takes the form of maps that center place-making, where north doesn’t have to be at the top, boundaries and plots lose meaning, and shared memories that live in that land regain power.


That’s a pretty great example of reclaiming representation. After all, opening up the range of ways to communicate is really about tapping into what we deem as valuable ‘knowledge’.

But how can we incorporate different ways of knowing into new ways of dealing with issues such as food and income insecurity?

More knowledges, more solutions

In India, we’ve seen how income insecurity and increasing debt, partly related to drought, created an agricultural crisis that led to over 330,000 suicides among farmers. This pattern isn’t new – the instability of crops, combined with economic conditions that push farmers to relocate to cities to provide cheap labor – have led to intense suffering and a cascade of consequences.

In Australia, new paths are being co-created by Aboriginal peoples and psychologists to support farmers’ mental health in times of drought. These tools are based on a broader concept of health as understood by Aboriginal peoples: ‘If the land is sick, you are sick’, which moves towards a more narrative form of reconnecting with the land as a suicide-prevention strategy. Read the article to see how fostering cultural continuity is being used as a way to decolonize health.

Decolonizing knowledge

For the ones engaging in more academic explorations about deconstructing and decolonizing knowledge, check out the How do We “Know” the World Series over at Convivial Thinking project. One of my favorites was this one on Reciprocity as Research Ethics by Christopher Millora from the Philippines.

“Having attended several development studies and international education conferences, I often hear of fascinating long-term research in global South communities (often by researchers in global North institutions) yet I hear few conversations around strategies to make research also beneficial to the people in the field communities.”

Christopher Millora

And I’ll leave you with this great tweet on the politics of knowledge production which applies just as much to the development sector as to academia and journalism.

Let me know which resources you enjoyed, what thoughts they triggered and how they’re useful to you. See you in two weeks!