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The Rusty Radiator Awards have a bitter aftertaste

While campaigns such as the Golden and Rusty Radiator Awards raise awareness of Western development organizations’ unjust views of the global South, they do not go far enough. Critiques of cliché media representation must be coupled with critiques of fundamentally unbalanced power structures.

On Tuesday, 2 December 2014, SAIH – The Norwegian Students and Academics International Assistance Fund announced this year’s winners of the Rusty Radiator Awards at an official awards ceremony in Oslo. While Save the Children UK won the prize for this year’s best charity ad (Golden Radiator Award), a South African ad has been voted as the most harmful example in 2014 (Rusty Radiator Award). According to SAIH, the aim of their work and campaigns is ‘to end stereotypical and pessimistic communication in fundraising campaigns’. They advocate a complex understanding of injustice and fight against the ‘[l">ack of knowledge and bad consciousness’ as the reasons for their belief ‘in simple solutions when confronted with an unjust world’. This year’s Rusty Radiator Awards follow SAIH’s success with the clips ‘Radi-Aid: Africa for Norway’ (for a critique, see David Jefferess’ article as well as our blog post) and ‘Let’s save Africa! – gone wrong’ as well as last year’s Radiator Awards (see our response).

The goal ‘to promote creativity and innovation in aid communication’ seems to be reached as most of the video clips broach new ground in advertising. However, regarding the goal to portray global (and local) injustice in a more complex manner, there does not seem enough consideration of the political implications of advertisements and awareness of the historical-political context in which the work of the organisations promoting themselves with the clips are situated. In our view, charity advertisements or – taking into account the possibility for them to be transformative – social justice advertising are a form of political education. Whether they are intended to educate or not, the effect is that the people watching them are affected by the images created and the truths put forward. This has, for example, been analysed for the German case in the documentary film White Charity.

With regard to social justice campaigns and advertisement, we are in line with Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti’s view that ‘if we want to work towards ideals of justice, we need to understand better the social and historical forces that connect us to each other’. She tells a story that seems to fit very well with the two ads awarded by SAIH this year, also since both deal with ‘saving children’:

‘[I">f people saw many young children drowning in a river, their first impulse would probably be to try to save them or to search for help. But what if they looked up the river and saw many boats throwing the children in the water and these boats were multiplying by the minute? [..."> In deciding what to do, people would need to remember that some rescuing techniques may not work in the conditions of the river, and that some strategies to stop the boats may invite or fuel even more boats to join the fleet – they may even realize that they are actually in one of the boats, throwing children with one hand and trying to rescue them with the other hand.’

Let’s have a look at the two videos nominated by an international jury and considered the best and the worst by the voters of this year’s Radiator Award. The South African charity Feed a Child was awarded as the ‘charity producing the most clichéd and unhelpful fundraising video’. The video shows a wealthy white woman treating a Black child like a dog, and the boy behaving just like a well-behaved dog that likes its owner. In the epilogue of the video, we read ‘The average domestic dog eats better than millions of children’. The Rusty Radiator Award Jury’s comment was as follows:

‘Completely ‘White Saviour’. David had to turn it off after 10 seconds. Racism isn’t something of 200 years back, it’s something very present in South Africa today. It’s interesting how this was produced by one of the biggest advertising companies in the world, and how they got it so very wrong. The message doesn’t justify using the same stereotypes to both raise awareness and steal agency. The poor are already depicted as incapable of their own rescue, now they are being compared to dogs. What next? Is there a score worse than 0?’

There was a big debate around the video in South Africa and it was eventually withdrawn by the charity.

It is indeed painful to watch this violent and racist clip, particularly in the South African context. Yet, while it portrays children and Black people as without agency, it unintentionally provides a damning critique of both the aid industry as well as post-Apartheid South Africa. While the inequality of the relationship between the Black child and white adult is crystal clear, it is portrayed as devoid of explicit (physical or verbal) violence, as perfectly normal. Both parties seem to be perfectly fine with the way things are. However, it can also be read as offering a metaphor for what life is like in South Africa for the majority of people: that the dogs of rich people actually do eat better than millions of (mainly Black) children. By completely exaggerating the relationship between ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’, it constitutes a pertinent critique of welfare as well as development aid practices. Contextualised in South Africa’s recent history, it goes beyond a metaphorical statement: non-white South Africans had to serve their white masters and mistresses like dogs; if they only as much as raised their eyes to look at white people, they faced the danger of arrest, torture, and murder. The stark inequalities and slave-like conditions of non-white South Africans have only recently been brought back on the national agenda with the video/song ‘Larney Jou Poes’ by the hip hop crew Dookoom in which they decry the conditions of farm workers and call for a transformation of land ownership (also see the post on AIAC). However, with this reading of the ad we were making a wish: we are aware that Feed a Child’s intention was neither an anti-racist, anti-capitalist critique of present-day South Africa nor an attack on charity work as such. Instead, the video appeals to the viewers: ‘Help feed a starving child. SMS “child” to 40014 to donate R20’.

Save the Children UK’s ‘Most Shocking Second a Day Video’ was awarded the Golden Radiator Award ‘which goes to the charity offering the most innovative and empowering vision’. This clip shows a young girl in different everyday situations at the beginning. Halfway through the clip the fear and violence of war enters the scene. The goal of the video is to raise awareness and money for children in Syria. The quality of this clip was argued for by the Jury as follows:

‘Any advocacy ad that can put you in the middle of the situation instead of casting people and situations you’d never imagine is a good one. This video presents conflict porn without overwhelming you with it, because you are so invested in this girl’s tragic day. You feel for the little girl as if she was someone you knew next door or your children went to school with. It emphasises the universality of suffering and empathy, and breaks racial stereotypes about who suffers.’

The makers of the clip portray the UK as a place of happiness and light-heartedness. The war scenes are surprising and seem out of place. The clip aims at raising empathy with the suffering of children in war-affected places such as Syria. This is achieved through various means: The settings the girl is put in (practicing the flute, being pinched by ‘granny’, school uniform etc.) and the evident British accent evoke the imagery of what is widely perceived as the standard UK child. Here, the issue of racialised bodies is noteworthy: a child with blue eyes and light skin was chosen. We wonder whether it would have worked as well had the child been Black or worn a headscarf. This brings us to the question of whether the makers of the ad (as well as the jury and voters of the Golden Radiator Award) had in mind that many young non-white and poor people in the UK actually grow up in conditions of violence and constant insecurity. Street violence in deprived neighbourhoods comes to mind, but also racist policing: Asian people are up to 28 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people. We are of course also reminded of the 2011 riots in the UK in which thousands of mainly marginalized and disempowered youths confronted the police and looted shops. This followed the shooting of Mark Duggan and was analysed as a reaction to grievances with regards to wide-spread poverty, exclusion and police violence.

The people behind the Radiator Awards stress the importance of agency of the poor. In this clip, the girl as the place-holder for children (or people more generally) shows no sign of agency. The only people who are granted agency are the potential donors of Save the Children. Taking de Oliveira Andreotti’s points to this clip, we cannot identify any hints of relationality. While the South African ad may be interpreted as – albeit unintentionally – portraying poverty and wealth, humiliation and exploitation as related, the UK one does not tell us who is responsible for the suffering of the child or who profits from it. Here, we could perhaps ask who is providing the weapons for the Syrian war and who has supported the Assad regime for years and years. The UK is one of the world’s top five arms exporters and the current government continues to grant licences to Syria for dual-use chemicals that could be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons. This would also bring up de Oliveira Andreotti’s question, how the consumers of advertising would react ‘if they realized that bringing justice to others meant going against [one’s own"> national/local interests.’ Would the people that Save the Children addresses as potential donors also contribute if a clip moved beyond a humanitarian relation and problematised the relationship of wars abroad with the UK’s industrial-military complex? Or, to take it one step further, the present armed conflict in Syria could be related to Great Britain’s colonial influence in the region that ‘transformed what had been relatively quiet provinces of the Ottoman Empire into some of the least stable and internationally explosive states in the world’.

SAIH’s work is laudable in that it constitutes Western auto-critique for which satire is a very useful tool. It has managed to put the issue of stereotypes of the global South on the agenda in development aid circles as well as the general public in the global North. Playing with the images and stereotypes that we are accustomed to and using them in other contexts, turning them around, provides food for thought. However, SAIH accepts the perspective of organisations that want to continue their work, it just aims at ‘change[ing"> the way fundraising campaigns are communicating issues of poverty and development’. A critical perspective should, however, ask whether the adverts actually put injustice or global and local inequality on the agenda. Like earlier activities by SAIH, this year’s awards and video (see below) perpetuate the classical development discourse. While the portrayal of people and societies in the Global South is questioned, the assumption is that it is these people and societies that have deficits and have to change – rather than the interrelation between the safety and wealth of a few and the insecurity and poverty of many. Coming back to de Oliveira Andreotti’s metaphor of the river, children and boats, the adverts regarded as good by the Radiator Awards do not

‘help people in the task of learning to ‘go up the river’ to the roots of the problem so that the emergency strategies down the river can be better informed in the hope that one day no more boats will throw children in the water. Going up the river means asking questions such as: What creates poverty? How come different lives have different value? How are these two things connected? What are the relationships between social groups that are over-exploited and social groups that are over-exploiting? How are these relationships maintained?’

We believe it would also have been more helpful had SAIH restricted its activities to the Rusty Radiator Award. By nominating positive examples of fundraising campaigns for classical charities, it becomes clear that it is not about a critique of development aid relations as such, but only about less stereotypical and crude portrayals (it is also not in any way an evaluation of a charity’s public relations work as such, because Save the Children has recently produced and disseminated some of the worst clips). None of the clips asks us to question relations of power or to politically engage in transformative endeavours. The subtexts of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ clips thus remains the same. The Awards make us believe that it is possible to produce non-racist, non-discriminatory advertising in a policy field so deeply entrenched in the history and present of global colonial racism – you just have to be clever and creative. It is of course ‘very difficult to move completely beyond those patterns – and this is due to our historical conditioning, especially when it comes to mass communication or institutional politics’. Yet SAIH also makes clear that they do not really want to move beyond the dominant structures: ‘We, as a development organization, are not opposed to development aid.’ This explains why SAIH’s critique of development remains on the level of racist representation and does not broach the issue of material relations underpinned by racism. However, if we merely criticise development aid for using stereotypes, we fail to understand the connection between the concept as well as practice of development and the legacy of colonialism and racism. The Awards thus run the danger of stabilising the underlying structural violence of relations between the global North and South, between poor and rich, by applauding cosmetic repairs of the surface.

This year’s awards were accompanied by the video clip ‘Who wants to be a volunteer’. The video was made in collaboration with the South Africa-based company iKind. The satirical film mocks Western stereotypes of Africa and brings up the issue of charity-mania. It holds the mirror up to the self-centredness of Western volunteers (see the really great scene in which the volunteer takes a selfie) when engaging with what is commonly portrayed as altruistic. While at first glance one might have the impression that the clip also criticises Western voluntourism in African countries as such, SAIH states that ‘[t]he video is not a critique of youth travelling to Africa to work as volunteers, but rather of the simplistic exotification of the continent that still dominates today’. It is thus – just like the Awards – not a critique of existing material power relations and stark global inequalities, but of representation. This again begs the questions whether the one and the other are not intimately related. Tourism and its sub-form voluntourism (as well as longer-term volunteering) from the global North to the global South are inevitably implicated in racialised cultural and economic exploitation of formerly colonised peoples. Of course, non-exoticising voluntourists and volunteers are nicer than overtly racist ones, but materially there is little difference as they are part of, and perpetuate, the existing unequal relations between global North and South. As much as we enjoy watching SAIH’s clips and sympathise with their attempts of changing the image of Africa and development, their critique does not go deep enough to address the quintessential questions of inequality and power in the North-South context.

*For more from Daniel Bendix and the rest of the glokal e.V. team, please see (

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