Politics of Representation: an in depth look at philanthropic organizations working abroad

“Teach all the time, even sometimes with your words.”  This is a quote I received in my first yoga teacher training in June of 2013 and I have taken it with me throughout my journey ever since.  In April of 2014, I found myself in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, doing none other than teaching yoga.  I was there to spread the practice—the practice that had given me strength in my weakest moments, the practice that empowered me to live into my greatest version of myself, the practice that eased my daily trivial worries.  I could not have been more excited.  We were on a 14-day journey with over 100 participants from over 21 different, mostly African, nations. One night, early on in the training, I was sitting with a participant, and we were trying to get to know each other.  He was telling me about his family and how he grew up amongst his brothers and cousins.  He told me about an organization he was a part of, Free the Children, and how he felt so fortunate to have been selected to be an integral part of it.  He explained how this organization reached out to him in their attempt to have youth empower youth and that his skill set and ability to teach yoga afforded him this opportunity as an agent of change, which he took, traveling across the country, speaking to youth and holding yoga sessions.  Through his words and tangible passion for the organization, it was clear that this very ability to serve was what was filling him up and driving him.   Fracie Ostrower notes that “Philanthropy grows out of a donor’s sense of identity” (Ostrower, 6), which suggests that people give to causes they are passionate about.  People give because they believe they have something that can and should be shared.  People give because they have something to give.  In the participant’s case, he had a learned skill set and a practice that had changed his life.  And with that, he gave back.

In this post, I will explore the practice of philanthropy through the lens of the nonprofit organization, Africa Yoga Project (AYP), which will serve as a case study for charitable organizations doing work abroad in general.  Philanthropy abroad is an extremely complex issue with many layers as to correctness and overall helpfulness.  My aim in this study is to break apart just a few of the layers, speaking to the complexities and offer potential ways to alleviate common issues. I will mainly focus on the ways in which these organizations garner support and the politics of representation.  I will also touch on how misrepresentation often invokes misaligned intentions and needs between organizations and the people they are serving.  As a participant in AYP and philanthropy more broadly, I have a definite shared responsibility in all of the critiques and arguments that ensue in this post regarding participation in and intentions of philanthropic organizations.  It is a collective responsibility to question the philanthropic standards by which we often blindly follow as a means to “get involved.”  My intention for this post, therefore, is to draw to light on some of these conundrums as I see them to open conversation around how we collectively can do better.

I want to focus on philanthropic organizations abroad that aim to control and reform the communities in which they work.  This control and “fixing” comes in different forms and the necessity to fix is rooted back to the colonial times in Africa, placing the “burden” on colonists to change the ways of life in Africa. In his book Global Shadows, James Ferguson talks about how the continent of Africa is spoken of, “in terms of crisis: as a place of failure and seemingly insurmountable problems, as a moral challenge to the international community” (Ferguson, 2).  Often the true social realities within Africa are overlooked as Africa’s place in the contemporary world is glossed over as seemingly helpless.  The outpour of “support” or “help” can often further marginalize populations as they seek to “make claims of membership within a global community” (Ferguson, 3).  There is this idea that aid is often the disease for which it aims to cure. Thinking back to the idea of needing to have in order to give and considering that power dynamics and domination stems from one group being seen as lesser or inferior, it is interesting to think about how organizations with intentions to help often inadvertently subjugate people even further.

The Africa Yoga Project organization was founded in 2007 in one of the poorest parts of Nairobi, Kenya.  The mission rests on these three questions: Could yoga positively transform lives across race, nationality, age, gender and economic status? Would yoga be valued when offered at no cost to the student? Can people who are struggling to survive, who live in an unstable environment, and who have little food to eat, utilize yoga to transform their perception of their lives and their sense of what is possible for the future? In the past seven years, AYP has trained and currently employs nearly 100 yoga teachers, mainly in Kenya, but spreading across the continent. Teachers are required to teach free outreach classes—a lot of teachers teach in the communities they grew up in or in orphanages, prisons, hospitals, or other places.  More than 350 outreach classes are taught each week, reaching over 6,000 locals.

From AYP sources and promotional material, it seems that most of the AYP teachers come from a troubled youth plagued by drugs, theft, and gang related violence. Part of the narrative AYP creates around the participants is that they feel as though yoga has served as an outlet for them, in a sense empowering them to live a life much bigger than the one they were living or the one they saw themselves deserving of.  As referenced in the participant’s story at the beginning of my paper, gaining the skill set and ability to teach yoga opened doors for these at-risk youth and gave them sustainable jobs and opportunity within their communities.  Many note that they now see themselves and are seen by others as leaders and teachers.

Many NGOs that work abroad and specifically in parts of Africa enter into a region with a purpose.  They aim to alleviate specific hardships some of which include disease, hunger, sanitation, war, unrest, and the likes.  With most of these NGOs, their purpose maintains a sense of urgency or emergency—it is a necessity or at least a seeming necessity from an outsider’s perspective.  Emergency draws participation—people want their time, money, and efforts to have tangible effects.  Looking at Africa Yoga Project as a case study provides an interesting dimension to this, as AYP is an NGO that provides a service with seemingly little sense of emergency.  Relatively speaking and from surface value, there are much larger fixes necessary in Nairobi than what is provided through the practice of yoga.  Thus, igniting enthusiasm and support behind this, aside from Westerners who actively participate in the practice of yoga, is difficult.  AYP does a really interesting job spreading the word and garnering support.  They use social media—Facebook and Instagram—as well as their website to share updates.  Another big way they garner support is through special highlights by other organizations or news sources.  Articles have been written on them and numerous videos have been made made, documenting the projects and outreach the organization is spearheading.  They have been featured on CNN, BBC News, NPR, CBS, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, and various television news networks.  These sources provide insight to outsiders about the work and lives of participants, however, often, participants are misrepresented.

One video of Africa Yoga Project that has been spread to represent the organization and ignite involvement is titled Practice: Change the Africa Yoga Project Story. From the tone and imagery of the video, it seems like the intended audience is current and potential supports of the organization.  The video begins with somewhat solemn, tribal music playing, as the scene is set.  The first image we see is a pan of a walk through the slums of Nairobi—there are shacks, wild goats and dogs eating from the mountains of trash, children in awe of the camera and assumingly the person behind the lens, people sleeping in the trash piles as children dig through them, and ragged laundry hanging on lines.  Almost two minutes pass before any words are spoken (or really any person is shown in detail) and the first words spoken are, “No water,” as a young man fails to fill up his bucket from the faucet.  For a video promoting yoga in Kenya, this introduction seems a bit out of place.  The entire video is 7 minutes and 48 seconds, so a two plus minute introduction seems excessive and leaves the question of what purpose this video is serving—is it in fact promoting yoga in Kenya or is it extenuating a feeling of helplessness, desperation, and savageness in Nairobi?

The video then moves to a classroom setting, panning to the learning visuals on the walls.  It seems like the aspects of the classroom and environment with the starkest difference from what the intended viewer is used to seeing are highlighted and reiterated over and over again.  The classroom has dirt floors, old desks, and walls made of scraps of aluminum.  The paintings on the walls are incredibly primitive with things like colors and pictures of household items and animals with the English name written beneath.  It also seems like the people in the video who come from AYP and the people behind the lens are treated as celebrities.  The kids surround them, in a sense begging for attention.  There is a distinct hierarchy established—like the reference to the participant at the beginning of the paper, in order to share a skill, one must have a skill.  In order to give, one must have.

This idea of a hierarchy and a sense of having something that another does not draws an interesting parallel to representation in general and the idea of privilege.  Lauren Kascak and Sayantani Dasgupta write in their article, #InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of Global Voluntourism, that photography is in fact a tool of power.  They write:

On these trips, we hide behind the lens, consuming the world around us with our powerful gazes and the clicking of camera shutters. When I directed this photo opportunity and starred in it, I used my privilege to capture a photograph that made me feel as though I was engaging with the community.  Only now do I realize that what I was actually doing was making myself the hero/star in a story about “suffering Africa” (Kascak and Dasgupta).

Without providing much tangible help, outsiders often leave with a feeling of having done something.  There is often a feeling of “box checked off, hands clean, my work here is done” that accompanies voluntourism—a new, controversial idea of traveling to third world countries to “give back” for a week. Kascak and Dasgupta reference the “feeling” of engagement that so often plagues philanthropic work—photography and documentation can serve as a crutch to portray a story that the representer or “hero” wants spread, which is often at the expense of the representer or misaligned with the true outcome.

At the very start of the AYP video, the camera is following a white man on his assumed first visit to the slums of Nairobi.  It is interesting to think about how this leaves the intended audience—assumingly white Western supporters—feeling. I thought it was interesting that there was a white man walking, clearly not from there, and he was being filmed as he stepped through other people’s homes.  He was leaving his mark in this community and “helping.”  Then all of a sudden, the man disappears from the video.  The controversy around voluntourism and really global aid in general is that outsiders come in, experience what they experience and help where they help, and then they leave.   The poverty and the issues persist, yet the outsider walks away with this video and photographic proof that he indeed was there, experienced it, and helped.

white man copy 2

Screenshot of man walking through slums


This also brings up racial divides. Specifically speaking to many parts of Africa and certainly Kenya, the white man is an anomaly. Automatically, he is seen as different and as an outsider, often creating intrigue around background and status from locals. Stemming from colonial times, the white man entered regions with a seeming “fix-it” mentality, possessing something that the other did not. There is an often-noted engrained mentality that the white person, or “muzungu” as the Kenyans would say, has something to give and a sense of privilege to be able to give—a seeming hallmark of the skin color. This was apparent in the April teacher training—on the last day of training, the American participants left gifts for the Kenyans (things like yoga clothes, mats and other props). This was not an exchange of goods, but rather almost an expected charitable gift. Interestingly throughout the training, participants were encouraged to see the similarities amongst each other, following the idea that everyone was more similar than different. Yet, by the end of the training, privilege and a distinct heirarchy appeared from both sides—the Kenyans held an expectation as the Americans fulfilled it.

Returning to representation through media, images captured abroad often come in two forms: either as depictions of someone different from oneself, capturing the sense of wonder that accompanies differences or the unknown, or as the outsider as the focal point of the image.  Both seem to be problematic.  First, an outsider capturing an image highlights what he/she feels is most important—in the AYP video, maybe for the first two minutes, this was an image of trash-ridden streets and abject poverty.  Second, an outsider as the focal point of the image, as in Kascak and Dasgupta’s reference, depicts the outsider as the “hero/star in a story about ‘suffering Africa.’”  Kascak and Dasgupta write, “Capturing this image and posting it on the Internet is to understand the Other not as a separate person who exists in the context of their own family or community, but rather as a prop, an extra, someone only intelligible in relation to the Western volunteer” (Kascak and Dasgupta, 1). It is pivotal to understand the represented in the context of his/her own life and own local world, and often a picture or video misses that as it is taken out of that local context and put into the worlds of others.  Arthur Kleinman writes extensively on the commodification of suffering.  He stresses how suffering, though sometimes collective in nature, is an individualized experience based on the local moral world of the individual—this is based on gender, age, class, ethnicity, subjectivity and many other factors. Generalizing suffering into a “representative” image, video or advertisement is extremely problematic, especially if the representer is an outsider to the local moral world that he or she is representing.

The issue with this type of representation is that the voices of the locals are lost through distorted, generalized representations that are used to garner attention and support rather than portray the true story of the individual. Kleinman writes about suffering at a distance:

This globalization of suffering is one of the more troubling signs of the cultural transformations of the current era: troubling because experience is being used as a commodity, and through this cultural representation of suffering, experience is being remade, thinned out, and distorted (Kleinman, 2).

The AYP video, as it begins panning through scenes of trash and poverty and continues as a “narrative” of the journey of specific AYP teachers, is told through the eyes of the person behind the lens.  It portrays the represented as the representer feels they should be seen.   On the realm of representation, it is important to recognize how limited an outsider’s view is on the real life of the people they are representing on social media and the likes, and yet how big of an impact their photograph or video can make on others who are even more removed.  It becomes a source of information and a truth for other outsiders.  When representation is skewed, this can become especially problematic because people do not know any better.

screenshot from end of video copy

Screenshot from end of video


As the AYP video continues, teachers appear, showing raw pain and emotion as they tell their stories. About two thirds of the way through the video, the entire energy shifts to one of hope and possibility. There is dancing and laughing. There is meditation and yoga practice. There is music and acrobatics. This last third of the video, in my opinion, is a true representation of Africa Yoga Project. Even in the slums of Kibera, the kids were smiling and expressing their gratitude and joy for our time together in outreach through the April teacher training. Having experienced first-hand the beauty in the work that AYP is doing, the video as a whole seems misrepresentative because of the beginning portion. Hopelessness and need were the furthest things from defining characteristics of the people of Nairobi and the communities that AYP reached, yet as an outsider, the overall image, aside from the last two minutes of the video, is one of just that. One must question what exactly is the intention for representing this community in this way. Is this a representation for the sake of accurately portraying these people and the work of the organization? Or is this video being used to invoke a response from supporters? And are these two questions mutually exclusive—is there a way to accurately represent a community and a people and simultaneously gain support from outsiders? Why do organizations like AYP feel the need to conform to a method of representation (or misrepresentation) that may in fact further subjugate the people they are aiming to help?

This brings up another big point on representation and the role of the outsider as a perpetrator of what they are representing.  Returning to the scenes in the AYP video of kids playing and sleeping in the piles of trash, or when the young man says no water as he tries to get water from the spout, what role does the person filming all of this play?  Why is he/she sitting there documenting instead of helping?  I spoke in a previous blog post to Kevin Carter’s photograph of a child peeled over, naked, unprotected and starving, in the middle of a desert, with a vulture seemingly about to attack her which gained a lot of public attention.  Kevin Carter, a white man from New York City who was visiting South Sudan for a short period of time, spent over 20 minutes trying to capture this “perfect” photo, and it paid off—he won multiple Pulitzer Prizes for his work. These awards are a seeming problem within themselves, as he is awarded at the expense of another’s suffering. However it is important to recognize the role of the representer as a perpetrator of the injustice he/she witnessed.  Kleinman quotes Carter as he spoke of his work photographing injustice, “You are making a visual here.  But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’  But it is time to work.  Deal with the rest later….” (Kleinman, 6).  The inhumanity that often accompanies shock-invoking representation is concerning. The focal point of the image or video becomes just that—a focal point or a prop in a larger story of heroism on the part of the outsider—losing all sense of humanity. When a human is seen solely as an object or a prop, it is easy to neglect their voice and story, diminishing their story and complexities and leading to troubling misrepresentations.

Africa Yoga Project has released many videos documenting and raising awareness around the work they are doing.  Most of these videos highlight a specific AYP teacher and their story—how they got there, the obstacles they have encountered, and the likes.  What is interesting is that these videos span from over seven years ago to just this year, and yet in so many of them the same story is told.  There is a seeming collapse of time as a familiar story is told of initial helplessness and hardship to eventually finding yoga and standing in power.  It is important to consider whether or not that exact story is still central to the represented person’s life, to the point where that story becomes their most defining and illuminating one—at least in the sense that this is what the audience of these videos is seeing over and over again. The representer has the power to portray the represented in whatever light he or she feels fitting.  Stressing the negative aspects of one’s life may invoke a human emotional instinct to want to help or to want to know more—the “shock factor”—but at the same time, the story that is told through the videos or photographs is often the only exposure the outsider will get to the life of the insider.  The acts of violence that plagued their previous years of life are following them as they are now defined by these stories.  They become what Kleinman terms them, “trauma stories.” These trauma stories are glorified and then used as a commodity, as a means of exchange both in emotion like pity and monetary support.  For an organization that rests on themes of empowerment and elevation, a persistent portrayal of AYP teachers in the light of a sufferer or victim seems to inhibit any progress that is made by the program from an outsider’s perspective.

This brings up the idea of the “suffering other.”  Kascak and Dasgupta write, “Images of distant, suffering women and children suggest there are communities incapable of or uninterested in caring for its own people” (Kascak and Dasgupta, 1). Even just one photograph of suffering creates a negative projection on an entire community—one person’s suffering is a communal failing and even further, a negation of the progress a community has made. Ferguson writes in Global Shadows, “As Achille Mbembe puts it, ‘Africa as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world’” (Ferguson, 2). Africa as a continent is described by its absences and failings. It is seen as so vastly different from the Western world, so dark in comparison, and so needy of fixing and light. This characterization of “failure, inadequacy, passivity, fatalism, and inevitability” simply justifies colonialist ideals of endless help needed from outside the local setting (Kleinman, 7). Representing a suffering other gives power to the stereotypes that already exist about the “darkness” of the African continent—this becomes more and more problematic as people are misrepresented and stereotypes are needlessly perpetuated on false grounds.

As people are misrepresented, supporters give to a cause that is often not of the highest priority on the ground. When the local moral worlds of people being served are forgotten, the context into which the aid is provided is skewed. While the shocking atrocities that are represented in the media often garner increased attention and support, on a moral level and in relation to progress, they are problematic. In order to break this cycle and still gain support, cultural relevance as well as a respect of the local voices must be accounted for. There are limits to configuring social suffering as an economic indicator, commodifying the trauma stories heard so often. Suffering is an individualized experience—no two people feel the same reaction in their bodies and minds to the same atrocities. Thus, it is unjust and simply false to generalize suffering or even needs into one cookie cutter model of representation and fixing.

So much of this world currently relies on immediacy—immediacy in information, immediacy in action, immediacy in result. As our world continues to connect on more and more levels through globalization, human experience and thus human experience of suffering thins out. Stereotyping suffering through generalized representations (read: every person on the continent of Africa needs our help) puts people into categories, helping us to explain a complex world through oversimplification—giving us “answers” and quick fixes. However, most of these questions do not in fact have answers, or at least not direct ones. So many aspects factor into the experience of suffering, and there is no one answer or solution to a problem. Dambisa Moyo speaks directly to this in her book, Dead Aid, as she states that with more than a trillion dollars filtered into different parts of Africa, these countries have “been trapped in a vicious circle of corruption, market distortion and further poverty—and thus the ‘need’ for more aid” (Moyo, xix). Blind aid—the type of aid that so often floods into places with misrepresented people—is ineffective. It is ineffective because inaccurate, generalized representations often lead to inaccurate use of resources. It is thus important to recognize the individuality that accompanies suffering. It is also then important to recognize the individuality and specificity required to alleviate this suffering.

Other AYP videos:


Works Cited

“Africa Yoga Project Reflection.” Online interview. 22 Oct. 2014.

Baynton, Douglas C. The New Disability History. New York: New York UP, n.d. Print.

Ferguson, James. Global shadows: Africa in the neoliberal world order. Duke University  Press, 2006.

Feuerstein, Georg. “A Short History of Yoga.” SwamiJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

James, Erica Caple. “The political economy of ‘trauma’in Haiti in the democratic era of     insecurity.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 28.2 (2004): 127-149.

Kahn, Carrie. “As ‘Voluntourism’ Explodes in Popularity, Who’s It Helping Most?” Goats            and Soda. Npr, 31 July 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Kascak, Lauren, and Sayantani Dasgupta. “#InstagrammingAfrica: The Narcissism of        Global Voluntourism.” Pacific Standard. The Science of Society, 19 June 2014.  Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Kleinman, Arthur, and Joan Kleinman. “The appeal of experience; the dismay of images:   cultural appropriations of suffering in our times.” Daedalus (1996): 1-23.

Moyo, Dambisa. Dead aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for        Africa. Macmillan, 2009.

O’Brien, Anne. “Charity and philanthropy.” Sydney Journal 1.3 (2008).

Ostrower, Francie. Why the wealthy give: The culture of elite philanthropy. Princeton         University Press, 1997.

Practice: Change The Africa Yoga Project Story. Dir. Dylan Trivette. Africa Yoga              Project. Vimeo, 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.



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