Why There Are No Heroes or Villains in Development

Minerva Strategies’ President, Joy Portella, argues that we need better storytelling to capture the complexity of international development. Originally published in The Guardian on April 18, 2014.

A despicable villain is a critical element of any successful narrative. Heroes are important, but where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort? Or Batman without the Joker? Heroes aren’t heroes unless they have someone or something terrible to conquer.

Villains are just as vital in non-fiction as fiction. Take this month’s news as an example. The west has been riveted and incensed by Russia‘s annexation of Crimea. The media and public’s consistent focus on this story is, on the surface, unlikely. Crimea has limited strategic significance to the west, its population is overwhelmingly in favour of union with Russia, and its shift to Russia has been nearly bloodless and largely unchallenged.

The Crimea story is compelling because its central character, Vladamir Putin, is the perfect villain. Portrayed by western media as half cold war KGB agent, half tsar, Putin seemingly cements his power by displays of muscle such as invading Georgia, wrestling animals, relishing Olympic grandeur, or cracking down on homosexuals. Both former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain – in a rare display of Washington bi-partisanship – recently likened him to Hitler. The Wall Street Journal declared him an ultra-nationalist who has “never concealed his ambition to recreate Russia’s regional hegemony.”

But the Putin-style villain – who is an oversimplication and at least partly a product of cold war nostalgia – is rare. Most situations that keep people oppressed and impoverished do not involve a simple, singular villain. Take Syria as an example. At the beginning of the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad seemed to be a class-A bad guy. He was an evil dictator whose only goals seemed to be harming his own people, denying a popular rebellion, and flying in the face of the international community.

Three years later, the narrative is murkier. The “white knights” of the Syrian Free Army are clashing with Islamic jihadist rebels who are, in turn, clashing with each other. While Assad is still unsavory, he has agreed to – and is at least partially adhering to – giving up his country’s chemical weapons. Policy moves from western governments have been confusing at best and harmful at worst. A story that started out as good v evil now has more twists and turns than the public can follow. Yet the victims are clear: more than nine million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes.

In the same way, humanitarian crises are rarely clean, short stories with happy endings. It is time for the media and news-consuming public to demand the same level of complexity from real life as they do from fiction.

This would serve the world’s poor and suffering well. Their realities are filled with complex characters: leaders who may have started out as national heroes but devolved into symbols of corruption and cruelty, western governments vacillating in their attention spans and imposing policies that do more harm than good, aid organisations that create cultures of dependence instead of self-empowerment, and corporations that grapple with how to enhance communities – or even sell to the poor – while making a handsome profit.

The poor themselves are not the ever-virtuous Dickensian victims they are portrayed as by journalists trying to sell a story or NGOs clamoring for donations. Mired in deprivation and desperation, they often heroically struggle to survive – but poor people are not perfect. They also make bad choices and sometimes resort to graft, violence, or addiction.

NGO communicators generally shun this complexity out of fear. They are nervous that a complex narrative will not evoke sympathy or donations. They are also anxious about being perceived as pointing the finger at donor governments and corporations, or criticising governments in developing countries who can swiftly terminate their ability to work, often with tragic results. These are reasonable concerns, but they are not adequate excuses for remaining paralysed in a cycle of storytelling that is neither accurate nor engaging.

Poor people are just as complicated as the rest of us, and they deserve a new narrative that recognises this complexity. In an age of democratised information, NGO communicators can lead this charge by being more honest about the challenges they face and the successes they achieve, and more optimistic about the public’s receptiveness to these multi-faceted accounts. If stories from the aid sector capture attention and inspire action, traditional media will follow the lead.

Instead of trying to create simple heroes and villains, it’s time to realise that nothing is more riveting than real life.

About The Author

Joy Portella

Joy Portella

Founder and President

Joy leads the Minerva Strategies team, providing senior-level direction to every client. Her skills have been honed through more than two decades of experience helping organizations more effectively communicate with media, donors, policymakers and other key audiences.

Prior to establishing Minerva, Joy spent five years as director of communications at the international humanitarian organization Mercy Corps. She guided Mercy Corps’ messaging, media relations, and crisis communications, and traveled extensively to document work in global hotspots including the Horn of Africa, the Gaza Strip, and North Korea. Previously, Joy worked for a decade at leading communication firms – Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn and SS+K – in New York and Washington DC.