What The Oprah Magazine can teach us about development


I like Oprah. She is an amazing woman, entrepreneur and her advice and insights have probably changed the lives of many people for the better. I also like international development. So when I was reading the May 2011 edition of her magazine (‘Live, love & thrive – All the way to 95!’), some of the contradictions, challenges, paradoxes and things that are good and bad about development were represented by the complexity of meaning and the ‘discourse’ of the magazine. Although this is hardly a new insight, it is fascinating how engaging with and selling an aspiration meets all sorts of challenges in the ‘real world’. As much as development has a mantra of ‘eradicating poverty’, Oprah’s empire, mainly her new OWN TV channel, has a mantra of ‘try to live the good life’. Live better, more reflective, healthier, or, to quote from the cover of the May edition, discover ‘6 superfoods’, learn how to ‘forgive anyone’ and get the ‘prettiest skin of your life’. I know, many similar publications promise similar insights and I don’t want to dismiss it right from the start as a consumerist and capitalist plot. It’s as easy as saying ‘development never works’. The biggest challenge is that Oprah’s aspirations, her good intentions and willingness to improve people’s lives bumps into some obstacles when it comes to the implementation of said aspiration or philosophy (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?!). It is not the predominance of ‘beautiful’, mostly young and white-skinned models that promote beauty products and fashion labels (I’ll try to name as few of them as possible...), but more importantly, one three-page ad and another two-page ad for antidepressants, a two-page ad for weight-loss medication and a 3.25 page ad for Botox. There are other pharmaceuticals as well. So without any reflections Oprah’s good intentions are accompanied by a medicalised ‘solution’, a ‘pill’ to ‘fix’ some of the big problems is life. And I’m not a big CSR-fan, so I don’t buy any argument along the lines of ‘I’d rather see pharmaceutical ad dollar spent on Oprah’s magazine than on other publications’. Nope, there’s no ‘public-private partnership’ with a ‘win-win’ outcome waiting around the corner. But focussing on the ads would be too simple. So would be focussing on the product endorsements throughout the magazine, the ‘great buys for under $100’. Maybe they are just ‘a few things we think help you feel great’. In a world where an, shall we say: an interesting group of for-profit global consultancy firms make it on a list as ‘top development innovators’, we are reminded that there is a close cooperation between very different worlds and approaches towards ‘development’ and just like Oprah’s communication efforts it’s all about ‘branding’; Oprah appears to be the ‘social entrepreneur’ of media: Combining ‘doing good’, ‘helping people’ with some good old-fashioned business acumen. So why bother? My biggest issue is that Oprah’s positive view brushes over a lot of the real anger, frustrations, poverty and injustices that surround us daily. ‘From accountant to animal savior’ is a nice little piece about a woman who quits her job to set up a shelter for ex-racehorses. So is a short review of John Prendergast’s latest book. John’s social conscience, we are reminded, ‘is so highly attuned that even a routine call on his cell can kick into overdrive’ when he starts to mention that fact that minerals from Congo are part of your cell phone and their profits may help to fund militias in Congo. The review, however, focuses on Prendergast’s friendship with a man he first met at a homeless shelter. In the end, it comes down to a message that I find more often in development these days as well: You can have the best of both/all worlds. Love your mother, get on the right medication, be a reasonable consumer and you will have a great life that you can share with others. This aspiration that everything is possible may be more deeply embedded in the North American culture than elsewhere, but in the 21st century it seems to come without trade-offs: You can travel to Africa, have an impact on people’s lives and write a blog or PhD about it. Work, fun, learning all blends into one great ‘experience’ – and best of all: Everybody is better off in the end!
Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the positive thinking industry ‘Bright-sided:How positive thinking is undermining America’ may not be the most ‘scientific’ critique, but her arguments are worth discussing in the realm of how development is conceived and promoted as its own
positive thinking’ discourse:
‘It’s easy to see positive thinking as uniquely American form of naïveté, but it is neither uniquely American nor endearingly naive. In vastly different settings, positive thinking has been a tool of political repression worldwide. [...] [Positive thinking] ends up imposing a mental discipline as exacting as that of Calvinism it replaced – the endless work of self-examination and self-control or, in the case of positive thinking, self hypnosis. It requires, as Donald Meyer puts it, “constant repetition of its spirit lifters, constant alertness against impossibility perspectives, constant monitoring of rebellions of body and mind against control.”’ (pp.203-204)
Although Ehrenreich’s arguments deserve a more comprehensive discussion, my point is that we need to be careful not to exclude the margins, the frustrations, the misery and the struggle from engaging with development. Even I as a critical anthropologist and self-reflective development researcher know that I am part of these paradoxes: Just by becoming a more ‘reflective’ organisation, development may not improve, but I and those other reflective practitioners and writers may simply feel better about the big challenges that stop ‘eradicating poverty’ from becoming a reality. Honesty in writing about our work, organisations, frustrations and challenges is a good starting point and Barbara Ehrenreich’s reflections on her experience with breast cancer always make me think about the complexity of the life and work I chose for myself, even when these are choices of a European man with a middle-class background who has suffered very differently:
‘Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger or more feminine. What it gave me, if you want this a “gift”, was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate’ (pp.43-44)

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