Cover from Newsweek magazine, with the article on Somaly Mam.
I’ve been following the news about Somaly Mam, the anti-trafficking activist who has come under criticism because parts of her personal story–she said she was a survivor of sex trafficking–were found to be untrue. She recently stepped down from her position at the Somaly Mam Foundation.
This controversy reminded me of the development dilemma that YUGA members think about a lot: how we represent the people who we hope to help. Here’s why.
First-person stories are incredibly important in the marketing and communications of international development organizations. They are powerful–both for the storytellers and for their audience, the people who see a video or read a story.
Telling your own story, and being listened to, is an empowering experience. We can all agree that it is important that people in poverty are listened to–after all, they aren’t just “victims”; they’re people with voices. But the audience–people like us here in the U.S.–also wants to hear a certain kind of story. This creates a kind of pressure that’s not very empowering at all.
The fact that Somaly Mam might have made up most of her own story is troubling not only because it casts doubt on many survivors’ stories in Cambodia, where Mam’s organization started, but also because of what it says about what we, as an audience, want to hear.
From the Newsweek article, “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking“:
At the heart of the questions surrounding Mam is a debate within the nonprofit sector on the acceptable tactics for fundraising and educating the public. [...] “If your goal is fundraising, you actually have an incentive to pull out the most gory story,” Papi explains, “and so we get completely false realities of the world.”
From the Atlantic, “Victims Can Lie as Much as Other People“:
Guy Raz, the NPR host, [tweeted]: “Even if 90% of Somaly Mam’s story isn’t true, the remaining 10% is so harrowing that it almost doesn’t matter.”
The fact is, it matters deeply, precisely because NGOs depend on the public’s trust. When people abuse that trust, it not only hurts good causes, it also undermines our faith in the media. [Tina] Brown [former Newsweek editor] is right: Due diligence is critically important in the largely unregulated world of NGOs. But it’s also true that for many people, a gushing profile of a selfless humanitarian or a glowing Kristof column about a survivor-turned-savior are due diligence.
I hope that you’ll read both of these articles in full, and explore this issue further. I also hope that your skepticism of some stories doesn’t get in the way of your compassion and your commitment to improving your community and your world.
Keeping an open, curious, and still-critical mind–to me, that’s the biggest development dilemma of all.