The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete’ – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

My first interaction with the global south came in the form of a small plastic globe that sat on my teacher’s desk. This was the mission box, and the coins that I dutifully put into it every week went straight to missionaries who were helping people in a far off place called Africa. That was pretty much the limit of my understanding. As my education continued throughout school and college, my knowledge and understanding of what was then referred to as ‘The Third World’ did not expand much beyond that limit; these countries were far away and were inhabited by poor people who needed our help.

The presenters of Comic Relief stood in the middle of disaster zones pleading for donations. News presenter reported on war, famine, drought and genocide. NGO advertisements peppered the tv screen, bus shelters and newspapers, each carrying the same message; that my monthly contribution could save a child’s life. Hence was the majority of our world presented in a one dimensional manner, defined solely by their suffering. My role in their regard was equally one dimensional; to shake my head in sadness and pity and to give charitably. To reference Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, I was sold a ‘single story’.

It was only after my first Volunteer trip to Ghana in 2005 that I began to challenge the ideas and perceptions formed by the types of messages I had absorbed throughout my school and college years. I arrived in Ghana with good intentions, financial donations and boxes of school supplies. I left with an entirely different view on the world and on my role in it.

I learned several things during those few months.  For starters, Africa is a huge continent of 53 countries and not a homogenous entity. Yes, there is a common identity to a point, a spirit of ubuntu, but the Ghanaians I met considered themselves as different to their close neighbours as we Irish do the French.. Despite the challenges and issues that undoubtedly face Ghana and other countries in Africa, what stayed with me the most from that and subsequent trips were things that I had never associated with Africa; joy, laughter, resilience, enterprise, love.  These things simply had not featured in the story of Africa I had been sold.

As I went on to study development and to critically engage with development discourse, I became more aware of how the Global South is represented in media and public discourse. The causes of the challenges faced by countries in the Global South are often presented in simplistic terms; people kill each other because of ethnic tensions, there is famine because of drought, there is poverty because of debt and corruption. And, very often, the solution is presented in equally simplistic terms; intervention from the West. The problem is theirs, but the solution is ours.

Countries as diverse as Zambia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Peru and India are captured under one title – ‘The Third World’, ‘the developing world’. This strips countries of their individuality , defining them only by their common poverty. Language is often laden with charity, pity and the voices heard are seldom thos of the Global South. Such homogenisation and voicelessness is inherently disempowering. It enforces a relationship of helped and helper rather than of common humanity.

A key aspect to global citizenship is questioning our assumptions and challenging our perceptions.  Stereotypes form the basis of many of the images and messages we are surrounded with on a daily basis, but this does not mean that we cannot seek to see beyond these to the myriad of cultures, histories and stories. We do not have to subscribe to the single story; instead, we can choose to read the entire book.

Author: Mary Coogan

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