What's New at Engineers Without Borders

May 25 2010 @ 12:26

Duncan McNicholl takes a new perspective of poverty

Although he has only been on the ground in Malawi for a few months, overseas volunteer Duncan McNicholl is taking a new perspective of poverty.

“We’ve all seen it: the photo of a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation that the caption all too readily points out,” says Duncan. “I compared these photos to my Malawian friends and felt lied to. How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?”

Motivated by his work with EWB, Duncan has been driving an innovative photography project forward called ‘Perspectives of Poverty’. This initiative juxtaposes pictures of Africans looking destitute with those of prosperity and dignity, to show just how much the development sector often needs ‘poor’ pictures of Africans to draw pity - which often transforms into revenue.

Read Perspectives of Poverty now: waterwellness.ca

EWB has long understood that Canadians need to think critically how entrepreneurial Africans are represented and Duncan's work is no exception.

‘Perspectives of Poverty’ has Duncan taking two pictures of the same person; the first looking traditionally ‘poor’ and the second looking well-to-do and especially dignified. He believes that this contrast will show how the same subject can essentially be seen in two different ways – depending on the perspective.

Edward Kabzela is an area borehole maintenance mechanic who I had the privilege of staying with for five days to learn a bit about his work.  As an area mechanic, he helps village committees keep their water points functioning by doing repairs and preventative maintenance.

Edward Kabzela is an area borehole maintenance mechanic in Chagunda Village, Malawi.

For example, Duncan photographed Edward Kabzela, an area borehole maintenance mechanic who EWB works with to ensure some of Malawi’s most rural communities have continued access to clean water. He is quite successful, both as an area mechanic and through other business initiatives. He grows tobacco, works with a basket weaving business, collects rent from a shop in the market, and services over 60 water points in his area.

Duncan took two pictures of Edward; one on the ground looking ‘poor’ and another in his suit to show how photographs can skew perceptions of forward-thinking people like Edward.

“[‘Perspectives of Poverty’] is not to say that people do not struggle, far from it, but the photos I was seeing only told part of the story," notes Duncan.

This project takes a particularly memorable approach to comment on the way Africans are traditionally represented in the development sector whcih in many cases this could not be farther from the truth. EWB’s volunteers like Duncan see this on a daily basis by living and working amongst hundreds of innovative Africans.

Duncan has a compelling argument, and it seems others would agree. Last week NYU professor and leading development critic William Easterly praised Perspectives of Poverty on his renowned blog, AidWatch. And this past Sunday the New York Post featured Duncan’s work in How aid groups distort our view of Africa: "Looking poor" for pictures.

‘Perspectives of Poverty’ is just one of many initiatives that EWB’s volunteers are undertaking to shift the perception of rural Africans from one of destitution to dignity. Duncan’s project is conveying a message core to EWB’s work in Africa – and it’s seemingly one that people have been waiting for.

Check it out now: waterwellness.ca


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