Why don’t aid agencies like to hire local talent?

by Sasha Alyson

When UNICEF needed photos from Bolivia, India, Jordan, Malawi, Myanmar and Niger to illustrate their clean-water campaign, did they hire local photographers in each of those countries?

No, they engaged an Australian man living in New York.

The photographer they chose was the award-winning Ashley Gilbertson, at VII Photo Agency, who produced good work for their “#Wateris: a family affair” campaign. In my opinion, however, that’s no excuse for UNICEF hiring him rather than local photographers in each country.

But that’s how most Western aid agencies work. Three years later, UNICEF published “Crisis in the Central African Republic” (shown at top). Every single photo is tagged “Gilbertson VII Photo”.

Five reports from U.N. agencies and Western NGOs show life in the global South. Why don’t they use photographers who live there?

It’s not just UNICEF. The reports shown above were published (often jointly) by World Vision, Save the Children, Plan International, ChildFund, and W.H.O., as well as UNICEF. The first report is titled Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000-2017; Special focus on inequalities. It was published by UNICEF and the World Health Organization. The cover photograph is by an Italian man.

In these five reports, U.N. agencies and international NGOs tell how they help people in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But the cover photos (and often most or all of the photos inside) were taken by Americans and Western Europeans.

If these organizations are concerned about inequalities, why don’t they make it a policy to always hire local talent in the countries they wish to help?

It seems like a no-brainer. Hiring local photographers would provide jobs where jobs are needed. It would help people in the global South to build their resumes and develop stronger skills. It would reward those who have invested in doing so. It would mean that aid money which is supposed to help these countries, would actually go into them without immediately bouncing back out. It would show respect for the local people, rather than treating them merely as a population in need of help.

Aid agencies typically hire local staff only for low- and mid-level positions. That’s an important story, but a different one. Here, I’m asking: Why do they so often pass up local talent when they need video work, graphic designers, and photographers, in favor of Westerners?

For some jobs, such as a big video project, they may argue that the skills needed aren’t available locally. Given the poor state of public education in most of these countries – much of which is a result of policies pushed by the U.N. – there may be some validity to this. But freezing out locals is not going to improve the situation, it simply creates greater inequality. At the very least, these agencies should insist on local involvement as much as possible. They do not.

In the case of photography, there’s simply no good excuse. Every country has photographers able to produce excellent work… and they’ll charge less than a globe-trotting Westerner. Why does the aid industry give so many assignments — especially the bigger ones with higher pay and travel opportunities and which are crucial for building up resumes — to Westerners?

Several factors are clearly at work.

First, it’s easier. Aid workers usually only stay in a country for one or two years. They socialize with other ex-pats, who often make a comfortable living by providing free-lance services to NGOs. Nurturing these connections comes naturally, and will benefit everybody’s career and social life.

Furthermore, the aid industry comes with an Us-and-Them mindset. We are the ones with answers, and we’re paid to help. They are the ones who need our help; they’ll be the subject of our photos. In this ethos, Westerners are the first people considered for any skilled job.

And there is a bias, whatever you wish to call it. The Western aid worker is more comfortable working with other Westerners. There are cultural, and often language, differences if you work with local talent. Aid workers may, without even consciously thinking about it, assume that people like themselves will do a better job.

But while we might understand all this, that doesn’t excuse it. Karma colonialism is the nicest term we can think of for this behavior.

Twitter comments

The tweet which announced this story has generated much lively commentary. Here are highlights. (By the way, we estimated this story as a 3-minute read. That was BEFORE these comments rolled in!)

Rolfe LAUGHIN, @Rolfe70667515: African politicians have all the power to stop all these things! But why are they useless when it comes to fighting racism? A dog never bites its master

Justus Keith, @matandaJK: True 100%. I am in Uganda, Africa and I totally know and I have experienced it as a photographer.

Learning counsel, @Its_Kimani: The writer dares not say the reasons as: (1) Perpetuating the White saviour complex; (2) Reinforcement of racist stereotypes by having people not tell their own story.
[Author replies: I decided it was more effective to let readers draw their own conclusions on this. I don’t know if that makes me a coward, or a diplomat. You, sir, are neither. Thanks for commenting.]

RazorRibbon, @SpacemanAp: Because their photographer will capture Africa in the worse light possible and keep perpetuating the image of Africa they want the world to see and believe as per their real mission.

Mebo Philip, @MPhipex: Anyone with practical experience knows the aid Agencies have a purpose and their pictures must meet their very expectations for “business” to continue. These pictures must always portray the poor countries as ridiculously helpless, they alone have to be the saviours.

LyonKing, @JimohOluyemiAb1: Then we coin those Foreign Aids as “Sugar Coated Poision”

Karabelo Mosia, @MosiaKarabelo: simple, we’re not as poor as they make us look!! the Australian man has a mandate to capture only the poor.

John Jude Adnan, @BENDYMAN20: Cynical me sometimes thinks this AID is similar to the Missionaries of yonder who had slave traders in tow at some point.

Joy Haines, @JoyHaines6: Excellent piece. Sadly witnessed this mindset, ‘up close & personal’ when I lived & worked in West Africa back in mid ‘80’s… 21st century hasn’t improved our western-mentality much! Except now, people are on the move northwards, less sun, but perhaps, improved opportunities~

Vita Fugit, @FugitVita: It’s how the Aid game works. If you’ve worked in overseas aid/development and you haven’t noticed this then you’ve either failed to open your eyes or you’ve chosen to look the other way.

PeaceTalk Nigeria, @peacetalk: and all these agencies should stop encouraging colonialism. If you can’t use local photographers and others, get d 4k out of our land. Nonsense!

Alimatu Dimonekene, @TheAlima: I see this also in the fight to end violence against women and girls. Every conference and summit I’ve attended has a face of a child from Africa, Asia or Latin America. Yet in making decisions around funding and expertise you hardly see these same faces. A sense of exclusion.

Taremwa karakire, @TaremwaD: I relate to this story. I was once part of a USAID project in Uganda where they always hired photographers all the way from USA to come and document the project.

Mana, @Jun1orm: A local photographer will do his best to make his community show the best it has to offer while a foreign one will do exactly what they want.

iNk, @nwaoma007: The Australian man knows that his brief is to tell a specific facet of the story which promotes the narrative UNICEF wants to disseminate.

Khanyi, @choolwekm: It seems to me they want to maintain the status quo to remain relevant.

Benson Ndehi, @BNdehi: I once had a small gig with UNICEF in Nairobi. The waste was unbelievable. Everyone had a network printer, for example.
[Author adds: In his book Another Quiet American, Brett Dakin tells of when he was working in a government tourism office that got support from the U.N. Development Programme. One day the UNDP sent them a new printer, which could do everything: Print in color, collate, and bind. They had never asked for it, didn’t need it, and never figured out how to use it, so it sat unused. He writes, “The UNDP had simply decided to dump a few thousand dollars of gear on the NTA. Whether or not it would be of use was immaterial.”

Sunflower, @TalelovesSuga: This is why I don’t like it when a white person points a camera at me… You can find yourself on a UNICEF poster.

Ruby, @Oghenerume9: I had always known this in my heart but it was confirmed when I was working for one NGO and actually saw with my eyes that it was all fraud. Life has been worse for the poor in developing countries since more and more NGO’s came around

O&B, @The44Families: This is business people. You really believe UNICEF and Co want equality and self-sufficiency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America?
Say they succeed in their purported goals, what then will be the reason(s) to keep them around? They need the needy to be relevant

Takor, @Takor61802157: Foreign bodies talk negative things about third world countries, they don’t take photos of the good things in third world countries, only negative ones.

david pearce, @davidpe11188501: A local head of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] told me that the children learn to cry on command for foreign visitors, esp photographers. Otherwise, the children look and act quite normal. They need crying children to sell their product.
[Author adds: In her book The Crisis Caravan, Dutch journalist Linda Polman records many stories of the quest for heart-rending photos. Of a camp for amputees in Sierra Leone, she writes: “Like pit bulls in a kindergarten, journalists from all over the world pounced on the story of the amputees. From CNN and the New York Times to Dutch public television and the South China Morning Post, they all managed to find Murray Town Camp. ‘It’s never been so easy to collect money as it is with the pictures of these poor devils,’ said an INGO staff member in Freetown.”]

Faye Pixie, @PixieFaye: The Us and Them thing is so true. Even if some of these organizations are trying to be benign, they’re still being colonialists about our countries. Photography is inherently biased as you choose what you want to photograph to “spread awareness”.

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26 thoughts on “Why don’t aid agencies like to hire local talent?

  1. You are true about that karma colonialism. I also wanted to ask myself the same question why it’s always done like that.

  2. It is like that

    Karma colonialism .
    Why don’t people there build their school themselves?

    Why don’t you hire local photographers??

    Nokia sponsoring the idea that phone increase literacy

    What a shame

  3. These realities stare Africa and the development agencies in the face.

    I have often wondered what percentage of the money on the so called development of Africa actually stay in Africa and with Africans as against the percentage that bounces back out to its source?

    • Many others have wondered too. It’s difficult to get facts, but a few have done so. Mark Schuller, in Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (Rutgers University Press) writes that “fully 93 percent of USAID funds in Haiti came back to the United States.” And here’s Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton, in The Great Escape: “By some estimates, 70 percent of aid from the United States never reaches the recipient countries, at least not in cash.”

  4. I hear that some UNICEF projects expenditures in bureocracy, trips, and VIP lifes for internarional personell consume 90% of “AID”. Maybe it is not true, but UNICEF never shows the details; only show the total budget.

  5. It was quite noble of you to include the Twitter comments as they were posted.
    The article is quite enlightening. Could you also include the steps that can be taken to prevent or minimize karma colonialism.
    Keep up the good work.

    • What can we do about it? That’s a bigger, harder question. We’re going to publish a free monthly newsletter for those who want to explore that together. Please sign up. (Link is just above the comments section.)

    • BTW, this is not ALL of the Twitter comments. There are 263 as of this point, many quite interesting! To see them, go to our page (twitter.com/k_colonialism), scroll to this tweet (on 26 Sept 2020), and click on the text (i.e., not the picture or link). You may have to be a registered Twitter user to do this.

  6. I just found this article on twitter and although it tries to point out the grey areas of development aid, I do not feel like this article is balanced, you cannot use a one size fits all approach to analyse the activities of all aid agencies including charities.

    I see what you are trying to do with this article, you cannot say aid is evil without taking about the corrupt system of leadership in developing countries. In my opinion, leaders have not shown responsibility with what they have and to their people. Nobody forced them to receive aid from donor agencies. The donor gets to choose how their money is spent and on what.

    So, instead of people wasting their time bashing aid agencies, I think it high time we start demanding accountability from local leaders who have left their responsibilities for other agencies to shoulder. It goes hand-in-hand, accountability should be demanded from both sides – development aid agencies and the states in need of development assistance.

    #mytake

    • Thank you for thoughtfully contributing. I agree with much of that you say. Yes, many countries — richer and poorer — have corrupt leadership. I write as a USA citizen and taxpayer, though living abroad, and feel my responsibility is to protest my country, and taxes, going to support this corruption. That will make it less difficult for people in each country to reduce or end the corruption. It won’t be easy, but it will be up to them. Nobody else is going to do it for them. We in the West must stop contributing to it.

  7. With all due respect, there is much more to the story. See this quote from UNICEF’s head of photography:
    “ Sometimes for budget reasons I’m not sending a photographer from, say, Europe to cover a story in Latin America or West Africa. I’ll look for someone who is based in Latin America or West Africa. I might be actively looking for photographers there through Blink, through contacts on the ground or my own networks. Sometimes we like the outside eye, but sometimes the local eye is useful.

    PDN: How is a local photographer useful?
    CN: We have different perspectives as photographers and everything in our past influences how we view the world. This is reflected in the coverage. With a photographer who isn’t the nationality of the country they’re working in, we can get more of a global picture sometimes, or help in disseminating the work in the market in which they’re located. There are a lot of local, national photographers whose work is of international quality. They often have a deep connection to the fibers of society, and a greater understanding sometimes not only about the repercussions of the news, but the little asides, the little unspoken things going on.

    Language is also a factor often. It’s about the relationship that photographers have with their subjects. You can see in the coverage the connection that photographers have with their subjects, whether they speak the same language or not. I think that goes to the photographer’s experience, their motivation, their commitment to the issues they’re covering.”

    • Thank you, glad to have another perspective. But I don’t think it helps UNICEF’s case when they say that “for budget reasons” they sometimes hire a local photographer rather than a European. And as others have pointed out, what this policy refers to as “the outside eye” may in reality mean, “somebody who can make the whole place look helpless if we weren’t here.”

  8. They really didn’t do their research well AT ALL. There is NO validity that people leaving in the continent can’t handle a measly DSLR camera. See names like Tayo Aina, Clarence Shot It, Me (Though, I major in YouTube videos and vlogs 😅)

    But what UNICEF does is hire foreign talents and go into the slums of Africa to keep pushing the narrative that Africa is a dying continent.

    If they take their time, they would know and tell the stories of the other Africans who have helped and are still helping, Africans who create job opportunities, Africans who let strangers into their homes and accept them as theirs.

    Africa is NOT a dying continent. If you come, you would see it for yourself.
    When you meet people, please don’t be flabbergasted by our “good” English (your ancestors forced that on us).
    Talk to us and you would see that we are just as human as you are.

    And honestlyyy, if you really want to help Africa? Our problem isn’t clean water, or food. Our truest battle is the power that governs us. They care more about the money in their pockets than the citizens themselves.

    And I can vouch that WE have what it takes to build our continent (P.S. There are MANYYY developed countries in Africa).

    Until we get a leader that would favour its citizens, I’m afraid UNICEF and other Western/European organisations would keep coming to the slums of Africa for “pity-media” story headlines.

  9. Not only NGO been watching this foreign news tv channels, when they are doing a story about Africa, the pictures and videos are always irrelevant to the news. Our emerging modern superhighways or posh estates never and will never be covered, they’re always busy covering the slums or a malnourished child etc.

  10. Unfortunately that’s the way life and the world is. When it comes to venture capital and grants for the NGOs in the developing world, priority is always given to those headed or lead by a non locals. Those managed and headed by foreigners are prioritised and easily considered for funding hence leaving the truly experienced and expert locals without options.

  11. I have a Son who graduated London Film School with a Masters degree In film production but cannot get jobs as advertised by all UN agencies. It is sad.
    Dr. George Josiah

  12. Well said Sasha
    Unfortunately not only in that Industry, mostly this is the game. If they only think on having great photos, locals can elevate great realistic situations than them.
    Your article is so pure and hot, it’s money for them but they keep us frozen initially poor and poorly but making sure we don’t get anything from them.
    But also it’s a kind of racism, that don’t hire them , but give ours.

  13. It takes a lot of spirit to see beyond the veil of deception so thick that it can be confused to lift life . Sasha, i appreciate the efforts on this and it has opened my eyes to many thoughts i have. Everywhere is covered with a thick veil of deception. Africa is the laboratory.

  14. Blames should also be given to our Leaders in Africa, they failed to capacitate their people. Honesty, Africa is still under slavery.Unless we put Africa first all of these setbacks will stop.

    • Agreed, there are many causes. Thanks for responding. As an American taxpayer and voter, I feel we in the West should stop our governments from giving money and other support to these governments — which then have no accountability to their own populations.

  15. Interesting perspective.
    Often, even getting on those job boards as an African isn’t easy, from personal experience. But of what use would it be if multinational development agencies like UNICEF are already biased in their award of jobs and contracts? They simply go to Blink and pick a Western photographer.

  16. Great work, Sasha.

    As an African, I’ve also found it hard to even register on international job boards. I suspect that the algorithms lock us out. I know of folks who even apply for jobs online but the moment they select an African country of residence, they’re locked out of the process.

  17. I’m a West African to be precise a Liberian studying plant and soil science, one of the biggest problem Africa is facing with is leadership structure as a science student I believe that population doesn’t matter what matter is efficiency.
    We have all necessary resources that can develop Africa but before developing Africa our minds need to be transform

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