The “Third World” Trope: Avoiding Undertones of Neocolonialism in International Advocacy Media

Advocacy media is an undeniably effective way to start a dialogue around issues of social inequality and discrimination, but has the potential for detrimental misrepresentation when done tactlessly. While effective media campaigns can raise awareness of issues on a global scale, the fear of falling into the “Sally Struthers” trope of dehumanizing your subjects is always a dangerous possibility, especially in the context on international work. Advocacy media that focuses too heavily on the direness of human circumstances often objectifies the people it intends to help in a way that is not only demeaning, but perpetuates harmful stereotypes that shape global perceptions. These misconceptions, along with the entire construction of the “third world” label, only serve to sustain Eurocentric hegemony and international class divides. Stereotypes such as these are dangerous, self-fulfilling, prophecies that can be detrimental to the development of communities facing systemic ethnic, racial, gender, or class based discrimination.

One of the most effective ways to create representations of people facing inequality without dehumanizing them as hapless victims is to promote the creation of advocacy media through self-representation. By empowering local activists and community members to begin to use media resources to tell their story to the world, rather than having outsiders portray their community through externally produced representation, we can promote reform and raise awareness without facilitating the neocolonial class divides and the trope of the “third world” victim. Similar to participatory design—a core practice of my program the MFA in Transdisciplinary Design, the core goal of this form of media activism is to help people help themselves rather than build sympathy for the destitute “other.”

This is one of the core reasons I am so excited to be working with Nazdeek this summer in Delhi to help build frameworks for educating community members and activists on media documentation for advocacy. Nazdeek has noted the importance of media as part of the advocacy process that can shine light on abuse, highlight corruption, and aid in the process of legal empowerment.  With Nazdeek, we have an amazing opportunity to help disseminate knowledge of how and when to use media to document rights violations in cases of police brutality and wrongful eviction in Delhi slums—the project that Nazdeek will be focusing on this summer. Proper media documentation of these issues can be used not only as a way to expose corruption and rights violations, but also as a way to build strong visual evidence for the litigation process, helping to ensure that victims can pursue proper legal redress.

This form of grassroots media activism is a fundamental first step in ensuring underserved communities can develop self-sustaining agency and begin to benefit from the fundamental human rights they are entitled to. Rather than showing the world a group of underprivileged individuals with limited options, we will work mobilize a community to push for internal action in the hopes of combating these instances of systemic inequality in a sustainable manner.

I think this project is going to pose a lot of difficult challenges, especially as a white, male, western, outsider, who is only going to be there for a short amount of time. There is an issue of trust that I am sure will be a challenging hurdle to overcome when working with communities in some of the poorest areas in Delhi. These are already instances that I have begun to encounter just in the process of reaching out to advocacy groups—local activists seem to be wary of westerners who are interested in social change, as I am sure past instances of “advocacy” have been demeaning and generally exploitative. But I am so fortunate to have been connected to a passionate and impactful organization such as Nazdeek, and I hope that I can really benefit the work they do during my time in Delhi this summer.

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2 thoughts on “The “Third World” Trope: Avoiding Undertones of Neocolonialism in International Advocacy Media

  1. Your project is really relevant, considering the importance and power of media in communication. What we are exposed to in the media most certainly drives our thoughts and actions. I agree, it is so important for individuals and groups to understand their power within the global dynamic and how they can leverage their position to fulfill their needs. Best of luck!