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Is the image of aid workers changing?

Is the image of aid workers changing?

For a long time, humanitarian aid workers were associated with western men and women in vests or branded t-shirts, well that was the image portrayed in the media and through the communication channels of many aid organizations. Despite the fact that a lot of the aid work was and is done by local staff, the message in the images was that of the west helping the needy. While these type of images are still being produced, there seems to be a growing awareness in the development field of the importance of a multifaceted representation of aid workers.

#NotATarget – better representation?

On this year’s World Humanitarian Day, celebrated on 19th of August, the UN carried on its #NotATarget campaign which was launched a little more than a year ago. The campaign, which calls for the protection of aid workers and civilians trapped in conflict, has shied away from the traditional image of western or foreign aid workers and is instead mainly using images of local aid workers helping their community.

Two of the images of aid workers used in the #NotATarget Campaign’s social media posts. © left: UNOCHA/Original Photo by Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP/Getty Images, right: UNICEF/Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin

Spearheaded by UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), World Humanitarian Day brings together partners across the humanitarian field to spread awareness on the vulnerability of humanitarian workers and civilians in war zones. The need to highlight humanitarians was raised after a bomb attack in Baghdad 15 years ago that killed 22 aid workers. Having been celebrated every year for the last decade, the day is usually highlighted on the social media platforms of all major players in the humanitarian aid sector.

Africans as aid workers not only receivers.

I find one of the images used in the #NotATarget campaign especially strong and important as it shows a very different representation of Africans compared to the more traditional images of African malnourished children. The image below, showing a team of African medical staff taking care of a patient carries many messages. It is for an example clear that the men in the image are African and medical workers, this let the viewer know that there are African medical professionals and that Africa has the skills to help its own, although resources might at time be scarce. While some may find this obvious, it is in terms of representation quit empowering.

Image of medical staff assisting a patient used to promote the #NotATarget Campaign on social media © ICRC/Albert Gonzalez Farran

In her famous TED talk the renown Nigeran Author Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of a one sided story. In images of aid, Africans has for long been portrayed just as receivers of aid and not skilled providers. Hence, the general public of the west may not be aware that there are plenty of skilled African professionals in the aid field and that may provide assistance just as well as the western aid workers Malin Petterson is discussing in her blog post

Local faces – better efficiency of messaging?

From informal talks with communication officers from several NGO’s I have learnt that many organizations here in Kenya try as much as possible to have local or African staff or experts appear in media interviews. One officer I talked to said that having a local staff speaking on an issue in local media meant that the audience would listen better to the arguments rather than just dismiss it as something “those foreigners are saying”. Another officer argued that it also helps raise the profile of their local experts when interviewed in international media.

So perhaps a change has slowly started to brew in the aid field, but while some organizations are getting more aware and conscious of the messages in the images they use others aren’t, so it is likely that we will see the images of the “white saviors” in outreach material and on social media for many more years.


  1. Marit Virma

    Very interesting post and so true also. After reading it, I also started to think what comes to my mind when I think of an humanitarian / aid worker, and immediately you have this image of a kind-hearted white person in your mind… it is actually sad how rarely you see the image / video of a local humanitarian/aid worker doing their job. It really shows that you only know the ‘difference’ when you have been involved in this specific work. I also saw the amazing work that locals do in NGOs and UN-institutions in Cambodia when I lived there in 2015-2016, much more local-workers focused than westerners, and I found it amazing. But as a commoner, you do not really see that ‘side’ of the story that often at all, hence it is refreshing to see it changing, even if it happens slowly. It will happen eventually.

  2. Agnes Rube

    Hi Marit, thank you for your feedback. Yes, it is true that local aid worker does often not get the credit they deserve for their critical work. In fact on a side note, one can even argue that the way many international bodies are set up with different conditions such as salaries etc for local vs international staff makes the assumption that the knowledge/value that comes from outside staff is of greater value than that of national staff. While it is true that international experts might need incentives to move abroad for work I don’t think this justifies the large structural division that for example UN has dividing between “general” (local employees) and “professional staff” (expats). I also hope change will come.

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