Radi-Aid: The Power of Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words”, goes the saying. But is it? To portray a story only one-sided holds dangers. This is where SAIH’s annual campaign Radi-Aid comes in.

Often, we actually choose to show pictures that offer a rather limited story. We use those that underline best the one message we want to put forward. As development organisations aim to gather donations, their adverts usually portray sad and hopeless looking people from so called developing countries. There is of course nothing wrong with trying to bring across a message as clearly as possible. However, to portray a story only one-sided also holds dangers. This is where SAIH’s annual campaign Radi-Aid comes in.

Radi-Aid was developed and first carried out in 2012 with the mock aid advert “Africa for Norway” that went internationally viral. In the following years awards were handed out to the worst and best development fundraising videos. However, Radi-Aid should not be understood as a critique towards development aid in general as it is not about taking away the help needed, but about communication. To communicate incomplete stories through aid adverts might not only undermine the dignity of the portrayed, but also denies the reality of another and more complete story that could be told. Why does it matter? Because the perspectives gained and shaped through the pictures around us influence our opinions and actions. If we base any of our assumptions on incomplete stories and insufficient facts, uninformed decisions on individual, community and even national level can be the consequence. Pictures are power! And this power should be used not only seriously, but also carefully. Radi-Aid therefore invites to challenge dominating stereotypical representations, to rethink critically and find more nuanced ways of communicating about global issues and countries and people of the Global South.

But what are actually the thoughts and opinions of the most important stakeholders - the aid receivers - about the images used in aid communication? The report conducted for this year’s campaign provides an insight into this perspective. 74 participants from six sub-Saharan African countries - Ghana, Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa - were asked to voice their opinions about a selection of aid adverts. Naturally, generalizations cannot be drawn from such a small sample, but the findings nevertheless provide interesting viewpoints. For example, the majority of respondents thought the adverts offer an accurate representation of the situation in Africa, seemingly in contrast with the message of Radi-Aid. Yet, they found it essential to preserve respect and dignity in the portrayal of people and also agreed that there was a lack of diversity in the adverts both in terms of age and race.

Hence, as it emerges once more from the report: The problem is not that the images are untrue, but that they are incomplete. Aid communication is complex and there is no single conclusion, just as there is no single story. So let’s focus on more nuanced portrayals to make sure a picture really is worth a thousand words!


Radi-Aid is an annual campaign created by the Norwegian Students’ & Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH).

The goald with Radi-Aid is t o challenge the perceptions around issues of poverty and development, to change the way fundraising campaigns communicate, and to break down dominating stereotypes.

Radi-Aid Research is a collaboration project between the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) and the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia.

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