Wikipedia needs more voices

by Sasha Alyson

People in the West generally appear to feel that UN agencies, global NGOs, and their government’s aid programs, all strive to improve the lives of “needy people” in the global South.

Those in the South appear far more likely to believe that most aid is self-serving, that it harms the people it is supposed to help even as it feeds government corruption, and that portraying them as “needy” is a patronizing or even racist way for wealthier nations to control the rest.(1)

That difference is not surprising. Westerners largely learn about aid from media coverage, which is heavily generated by fund-raising departments. Those of us who live elsewhere see aid projects in action… or inaction. We see the NGOs arrive with big plans and a photographer or two… but no one to report on how quickly everything reverts to how it used to be, as soon as the money stops.

We can’t make the big media cover this. Nothing happened? That’s not news! But we do have access to the source of information used by more people than any other: Wikipedia. It even reaches people who never use it: Google often shows a Wikipedia definition when you search for a word.

Wikipedia became famous as the encyclopedia that anybody can write for. That sounds like a recipe for disaster but in practice, Wikipedia has set up safeguards and is about as accurate as more traditional sources – in part because anyone who spots an error can do something about it.

Wikipedia was started in the U.S., it remains U.S.-based, and Wikipedia writers live overwhelmingly in the West. (The map at the top shows the 25 countries with the most contributors.) Wikipedia welcomes more diverse voices. Why not become a contributor? It’s easy. Just go to, and then somewhere (probably at the top) you should see “Create an Account.” If you create a user name, your real name and location will not be made public. A Help page offers further advice.

The simplest way to start is with a small correction to something that is wrong or incomplete. With a little experience, you’ll gain confidence to add new material. Here are some thoughts for going further.

Understand how Wikipedia works.

Wikipedia entries should be factual, based on published sources – which can be books, newspapers, magazines, or websites. It is not for personal opinions, nor for original research. But opinions do have a place, in the right context, just as the news section of a newspaper may report on opinions expressed by people.

For example, some entries include a section named “Controversy” or “Criticisms”. Or you can add one. In that, you can explain a controversy, and quote someone from a published source who has commented about it.

Be creative in thinking about entries where you can contribute.

Here are some general categories to think about:

Agencies and organizations. This could include everything from UN agencies (Unicef, Unesco, etc.) to large NGOs (World Vision, Save the Children) to national aid agencies (USAID, Australia AID, etc.), to foundations, universities, and much more.
Issues and concepts. Colonialism, decolonization, capitalism, neo-colonialism, imperialism, aid, development aid, international development all have entries. So does “Criticism of the United Nations,” “Education in [country name]”, and much else.
Books and their authors. Some important works have an entry; many do not. Authors of such works often have an entry, but there may be very little about a book they’ve written which merits wider attention.
Historical events. These may be covered in a entry about the event, or about the country or location, or a prominent leader.

Provide sources.

Statements of fact should give a source, whenever possible and appropriate, with a footnote. If you get ideas from our site, it’s best to cite our original source. However, having mentioned is valuable, too; and entirely appropriate. After explaining a criticism, you can amplify that with an opinion quote from our website or or another source. And of course, we’re happy for you to quote us where we’ve been the first to cover something. Two examples would be:

Francophonie: France sacrificed education of African children in an effort to spread its language

Save the Children: The global charity deceived donors about the effectiveness of its reading program.

As you read about karma colonialism, aid – or any other topic – watch for items that might be of interest to Wikipedia readers, and help it offer a wider perspective. As examples, here are several recent stories, from diverse sources, that could provide material to add to suitable Wikipedia entries. Better-known sources may have more crediblity (whether they deserve it or not) but this is also an opportunity to get wider attention for websites and publications that offer other perspectives.

Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian writer and activist, in African Arguments

On Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s assassinated leader, in The Elephant

The next UN humanitarian chief should be picked on merit, in The New Humanitarian

Foreign Aid and White Saviorism, in the New York Times

If you don’t have sources, your contribution may be challenged by another editor. For that matter, even well-sourced material can be challenged, but you’re more likely to prevail if you’ve been careful.

Make it a social event.

Successful churches fill social as well as spiritual needs. Can you bring together a Wikipedia group, perhaps 3 to 6 people, who share your passion, and bring the range of skills that will help? (Writing ability, computer skills, being avid readers…) Have weekly or monthly meetings, encourage everyone to come with a few suggestion about entries to post or change, then others can read and comment. It will be easiest if you meet where you can work on a desktop computer rather than a mobile phone. If you get this going, please tell us about it. Your example will encourage others.

You can create a new entry.

It’s not hard, but it’s best to wait until after you have experience with simpler edits. If you were using the Times story mentioned above, and had sufficient experience on Wikipedia, you might create an entry for the organization “No White Saviors.” (As of this writing, they are mentioned in Decolonization, with the name in red, which means there is no entry, but it would be appropriate to make one.)

Let’s respect Wikipedia’s philosophy.

The global South’s view of aid is greatly under-represented on Wikipedia, and in most Western media. By adding other perspectives, we’re helping it do a better job, while also moving toward the world we want. That’s fine; I imagine most entries are written by people with their own, widely varying motives. But let’s try to keep our writing scrupulously accurate.

Gradually, learn about the tools available.

WikiProject pages are available for many subjects. They suggest articles that need work, or that should be written. For example:

WikiProject Africa :: WikiProject Asia :: WikiProject Latin America

Then there are the Talk pages, for devotees of a subject, such as Talk Colonialism. Be ready for a lot of talk if you visit this one!

Post photographs, too.

Pictures are a sure way to draw the reader’s eye. You can post pictures without attaching them to text. Better yet, think about what story they might illustrate, and how a caption could tie together the picture, the story, and perhaps a point of information that is relevant. You can add a picture to an entry, even if you don’t add text. Captions are read more than other text.

Unsure about how to start?

So are most first-time contributors. “Be bold!” urges Wikipedia. Good advice.


Map shown at top: By 16@r, from Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA 3.0. The original version used a dark green for countries where a majority of the population speaks English as their first language; for this story, I felt that distinction wasn’t needed. The map is dated 2008. I cannot find more recent data, but have found no reason to believe the picture has significantly changed.

1. I say these “appear” to be the prevalent beliefs. Our own Twitter poll supports that conclusion. (This poll was promoted to a broad range of population in each area — not just our own followers — but it’s a snapshot, not a representative survey of attitudes.) I cannot find any record of a more thorough survey of how aid is perceived. Why not? Wouldn’t the U.N. and other agencies want to know? Or… would they rather not know?

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