LensShift at TEDxOxford


In March this year, our founder was invited to give a talk at TEDxOxford. This served as an incredible opportunity for us to open up the work we’d poured ourselves into for years. What started out as simply a radical idea on how to change narratives around social impact, evolved into a movement and resource hub that was launched to an audience of over 1800 people!

Here is the TED Talk’s script; check here for the video recording!

Change your perspective. For Good.

Have you ever thought about the impacts of what you don’t learn? What you don’t see? What you don’t know? It difficult to do… it’s even seems sort of futile.. To try and imagine all the things you don’t realise… but I’ve come to think that asking these questions is one of the most important things we can do each day...

Throughout my career in development I come across countless initiatives, some highly impactful, some disastrous… and became fixated with trying to place my finger on what differentiates them

Today I want to share the journey I’ve been on, grappling to understand what sits behind the different results .. And what lead me to start LensShift, a movement and resource hub for guiding responsible social impact.

For me. It started with the a development initiative encountered early on…

Let me tell you about it… from TWO perspectives.

After decades of unrest caused by Joseph Kony and the LRA, Mirembe, a community leader in rural, northern Uganda, decides to set up a school for children with disabilities-- some who were born with impairments and others who were scarred by the war. Along with engaging her community to build a school, she carefully develops a community-centered financial model to ensure long term sustainability for the school.

Wanting a unique experience in university, Ron decides to take a break. He’s heard of so many issues plaguing ‘Africa’ and knows that he really wants to do something worthwhile with his time. When he hears about a school for children with disabilities, he feels convinced that he must help. Though he doesn’t have any prior experience working outside of Europe or with children with disabilities, he’s certain he can learn along the way.

Mirembe is wary about the recent arrival of Ron and his promises of unlimited funding. But, her caution is overridden and her role in leading the school is restricted. It’s the only way Ron’s donors are willing to pour money in. In the interest of the new clothes and materials the students now have access to, she keeps quiet.

The school thrives. There’s a steady stream of international visitors and volunteers. Ron’s incredibly proud of how much he’s been able to achieve in such a short timespan. He returns home with a moving story about how he saved an organization and exploded its growth. Though his friends and family who were donating through him will no longer send money, he’s convinced the school is still better off. He doesn’t have a sense of what he’s left behind.

In actuality, given the community’s now shifted expectations and disengagement with the school and its funding, Mirembe is left with the school teetering on the verge of bankruptcy with no more long term sustainability. The lives of the 80 elementary aged children is left in limbo. There is no other school to serve their needs in northern Uganda.

Watching this unfold, i was struck by the fact that both of these accounts, though entirely in conflict with each other, were simultaneously true.

And most often we only hear from Ron, the viewpoint of the outsider, who might be our friend or colleague, rather than from the likes of Mirembe -- community members themselves.

Now, the case for reassessing development is not new...As I worked on more and more initiatives and read impact analyses, the extent of the problem became clear-- that this is hardly a one time phenomenon. If it was case, Ron’s story would simply be a mistake for us all to learn from and move on. But there are dozens of examples of misguided initiatives…Let’s talk through a few so that I can share what I started to notice.

Firstly, buy one, give one charity campaigns by large retail corporations have proved disastrous for local economies. Shoe companies that donate a pair of shoes for each pair you buy, have been shown to put local shoe makers in recipient countries out of business by the thousands.

In 2006, the US government, along with several other donors, pledged $16 million for PlayPumps, a merry-go-round that pumped safe drinking water. At first it appeared to be an ideal, fun solution to address disparities in water access in the Global South. But by the following year, one fourth of the pumps were already in disrepair. And once the excitement and novelty of the new toy wore off for kids? Women were left with the demeaning task of “playing” the pumps to get safe water. What’s more, experts later estimated that children would have needed to “play” for 27 hours a day to produce the amount of water promised by PlayPump.

In Nepal, following the Gorkha earthquake, many development organizations were inundated with volunteers and found themselves spending more time and resources training volunteers, who would stay with the organization for under two weeks, rather than helping victims of the earthquake.

What exactly happened in these cases? Clouded by preconceived notions of other communities, Ron and other outsiders did not see the huge gaps in their own knowledge. They did not see the sweeping, damaging assumptions they were making were unintentionally undermining communities.

As I reflected on such examples I couldn’t help but think, “How did we get here?” Where do our misconceptions come from? Why do we even make such damaging assumptions in the first place? There’s no way around the fact that it’s a complex problem. And while there are many factors that shape how we think and what we do, I’d like to highlight two of the biggest culprits I’ve noticed--the “Western mainstream narrative” and “educational gaps.”

The “Western mainstream narrative” includes the media around us and language we use. While there are certainly exceptions to what I’m about to highlight, consider the following:

    • Can you think of the last mainstream movie you watched, Black Panther aside, that didn’t portray Africa as a homogenous, exotic land of warlords, corruption, starving children, majestic endangered wildlife and jungles?
    • Or perhaps a movie that didn’t portray all of the Middle East as a desert filled with camels, sandstorms and extremists?
    • Or how about the last time you picked up a book based in ‘Africa’ that didn’t feature the silhouette of a lone acacia tree against a gorgeous savannah sunset?
    • Or the last time you saw an international charity fundraising appeal without the use of a child or person (likely of color) as a visual prop illustrating suffering who could be saved with ‘just a few cents per day’?
    • Did you know that 13 times more money flows out of sub-Saharan Africa through resource extraction and capital flight than into the continent in the form of aid and development assistance?

And how about the words we hear and use in our daily lives? Whether we like it or not, the language we use seeps into our consciousness and shapes how we think and make sense of the world around us. Have you ever considered what the impacts might be of always hearing your own country as “first” world or “third” world and how that might naturally shape a perception of hierarchy?

Language is powerful. Media is powerful. Whether radio, print, tv, or movies, this “Western mainstream narrative” plays a fundamental role in shaping what we perceive as reality, norms and ‘other’-ness. We’ve heard time and time again about the dangers of a single story, yet often it continues to be the only thing most easily accessible to us.

I think the second culprit is “educational gaps.” It’s been said that the future of any society depends on its ability to understand and reconcile with its past.

    • Considering that, how many of us were taught in school about things like The Berlin Conference of 1884 where various European powers scrambled to arbitrarily carve up maps of Africa, ignoring established societies and fostering many of the tensions that persist today.
    • Were any of us formally taught any detailed accounts of what colonial and imperial atrocities actually looked like in practice?
    • Or that the continent of Africa is nearly 3 times as big as it looks on the mercator projection that is used to make most maps we see?
    • Did you know that what Western education teaches as the “dark ages” were a time of great prosperity in eastern and southern Asia?
    • Perceptions are powerful. The history we learn establishes the undefinable and power dynamics of a space. The social impact realm is no different.

This perception and knowledge disparity doesn’t have to be our reality. The more I reflect on all this, the more I’m convinced-- if you think about it: the status quo is formed by cultural norms, people’s perceptions and global policy -- all of which can be influenced.

Imagine a world, a socially just world, where good intentions are navigated responsibly. Where everybody felt accountable to evaluate their own privilege and power. Where rather than being dismissed, history is used as a basis for formulating responsible policy. Where communities came above all else rather than the external actors working in them.

This is the world my team and I imagine as we work to build LensShift each day. We are a movement, and an actual resource hub, designed specifically to address misguided social impact work by facilitating learning, critical reflection, and discourse on social change.

A growing number of conversations have been underway about understanding the biases inherent in the world around us, and where they come from. By curating resources on how to improve ourselves and this space, we are helping to grow an enlightened community of volunteers, donors and citizens around the world. We each play a part in the system. We don’t have to be working in development directly to be supporting a potentially damaging approach. The language we use, the policies we support, the movies we watch, the movements we idealize, the organizations we donate to all contribute to allowing the current systems of power and irresponsible perceptions to persist. But let me get back to LensShift in a minute.

Now that it’s clear how we’ve come to be so misguided, we must remember that these narratives and gaps determine the world we ALL live in. They determine how we see the world and the way we act to change it. So what can we do? How can you begin to reshape this misguided collective understanding that caused Ron’s mistakes with the school in northern Uganda? I think it can start with even the smallest acts. Let’s think of some examples…

    • If somebody names a city in the Global South and you immediately think of a poor person in a hut like you saw once in a fundraising commercial → Google that country! Educate yourself on what the capital city is like. Maybe look up the hottest bars, best hangouts, or cultural attractions.
    • If you come across a movie using the same old trope of exotic faraway lands whose people are all either incompetent or evil → tell your friends not to support it in theatres. Call it out online.
    • If you’re about to use the phrase ‘third world’ or “developing country” → don’t. Find and use other terms that do not presume a hierarchy
    • If you hear somebody using “Africa” → remind them it’s a continent then ask them to be more specific and name the specific country.
    • If you read a news story that’s portraying people in an othering way → look up the local news outlets from that region to get a more real perspective.

Of course… these are tiny things… but it’s only when we start to do this can we start to perceive the complexity. The truth is, Ron didn’t need to know everything… but he needed to question what he thought he knew. Think of it this way. I believe that if our first reaction to things is from conditioning, our second reaction is our choice. It’s natural for many of us to first think of Rwanda as a warring genocidal state… rather than as one of the key states in last year’s intervention to prevent a dictator holding on to power in The Gambia.

We need to foster a second reaction that questions the first… that says… What if the world is more complex than that?... What if along with merely being as a safari destination, Nairobi has some of the coolest art and co-working spaces around?… What if diverting thousands of dollars to a school in Uganda for two years and then leaving means that the kids might be worse off than if you stayed home?

Now, I don’t want you to walk away thinking that good intentions are not a good thing. They absolutely are, but know that they, alone, are not enough. If they were, the world would be fixed by now.

LensShift is just getting started with this work and we’re excited to be a reference for learning and critical reflection.

As I wrap up, I urge you to ask yourself the questions that set and keep me on this journey: Reflect on the impacts of what you didn't learn in your education. What don't you see about the world you live in? What don't you know? How can you expand your own knowledge base?

This process of questioning will allow us to start recognizing the complexities of the world in which we live. Only from greater understanding can we shift our perspectives. And only from better informed perspectives can we engage responsibly towards a socially just world.