CNN Hero of the Year event offers a glimpse into today’s depoliticized charity industry

To be honest, I am not expecting much from CNN these days – certainly not much in terms of critical journalism. But it is still a fixture in the mainstream news orbit, maybe even some kind of a ‘global’ media brand.

So when CNN celebrates its ‘Hero of the Year’ award it is a good opportunity to have a closer look at how global and domestic affairs are represented in the line-up and what they say about the state of civil society, global engagement and the non-profit charitable industry. 

In short, while many of the projects are commendable efforts that certainly have made an impact on vulnerable people’s lives, the award is a celebration of the American charity hero figure. It is a well-rehearsed display of how individuals can make small differences-without rocking the social boat or engaging with root causes or systemic problems. Firmly embedded in notions that outside ‘heroes’ will bring ‘change’ and ‘fix’ peoples’ lives the award is essentially a celebration of the North American non-profit industry model that is firmly embedded in philanthrocapitalistic notions that ‘we’ can help ‘them’ to become better consumers in the biggest sense of the word of our products and beliefs.

It was actually the 2015 CNN Hero of the Year that inspired my critical reflections

From backpacker to mum of 50 children in Nepal

A decade ago Doyne's backpacking trip to Nepal transformed into a long-term commitment. Spending $5,000 in savings from her babysitting days, Doyne bought land and worked with the community to build a school, a women's center and the Kopila Valley Children's Home.
Complete with the obligatory photos of Doyne being surrounded by smiling children in school uniforms and ‘bonding shots’ with babies it is no wonder that her project won the online vote. Women. Children. Nepal-its a bit like charity fishing with dynamite…

But it is worth going through the carefully crafted piece a bit more in detail, for example‘Street doctor’ Jim Withers
’ presentation:
"I was actually really shocked how ill people were on the street," Withers said. "Young, old, people with mental illness, runaway kids, women (who) fled domestic violence, veterans. And they all have their own story."
This reminds me of the discussion around the ‘Humans of New York’ project and the intricate ways of how ‘story’ becomes a representation of someone or some bigger problem; so why exactly are some many people on the streets? Well, it’s a complicated story, you know…

Depolitization by omission – missing words in the hero project’s presentations
Richard Joyner’s project is presented in a way that makes ‘food deserts’ or ‘nutritional deserts’ almost look like a natural phenomenon not an expression of urban politics, capitalist consumption and unhealthy processed food choices. In the paragraph about his project the words ‘supermarket’ and ‘fast food’ are noticeably absent.

The next project is about ‘walking off the war’, a hiking project for war veterans:

Hiking eight hours a day, I was processing all of these experiences that I had put away
And what ‘experiences’ might that be that the veteran is referring to? The psycho-social damage inflicted by the ‘war on terror’ or drone strikes in Pakistan? Or a veteran care system that encourages you to ‘walk off’ your mental illness because other treatments are regarded as too expensive? We won’t know, because that may disturb the charity hero narrative.

And you probably noticed that the word ‘climate (change)’ is absent from Bhagwati Agrawal’s project description:

California's record-breaking drought has made news, but in Rajasthan, water scarcity is a way of life
It appears that higher forces, maybe cultural factors, are at work that the pensioner is addressing; Google drought climate change rajasthan and my first result page highlights some interesting further reading.

And Kim Carter’s quote on her project

Homeless women and children -- I call them invisible people
is another of those expressions that I immediately feel uncomfortable with – maybe ‘Invisible Children’ spoilt that expression for me, but it raises broader questions of agency right away.

Finally, another medical doctor is also portrayed

"I know I can't fix everybody," he said. "My goal is to be the battering ram to help break down the barriers to get these patients the care and the resources they need."
Another well-known ‘one (white) man’s quest to save the world against the odds’ story line building up-complete with a catchy war metaphor.

Donations, leadership courses and product tie-ins
And of course the ‘Peabody Award-winning, Emmy-nominated franchise’ has teamed up with a special payment provider to facilitate donations and ‘all 10 Heroes will participate in customized versions of (a training program), tailored to help grow their individual organizations’ – any gala event that celebrates heroes needs leadership courses and reminders that ‘smarter’ consumption is the way forward to save the planet…

Critiquing the messenger-not necessarily people and projects 

Just a final note: My post is primarily a critique of CNN and mainstream journalism’s (re)presentations of charitable endeavors; I am fully aware that none of the projects should be reduced to a single paragraph and sound bite from its founder. I am also quite sure that the projects do deliver positive impact on the individuals and communities they set out to help and they should be congratulated for that.

At the same time as teacher and researcher I feel it is important to provide critical commentary on the one person hero narrative and on Band-Aid projects that ignore the multi-billion dollar challenges of the development, humanitarian, military-industrial, consumer good and medical industries.
It is also important to point out time and again the fact that so much of journalism and public representation of global issues is stuck in 20th century narratives that have been slightly upgraded to include mediatized discourses around ‘storified’ others (I wrote a post about the Oprah magazine back in 2011)

As digital engagement is shaping discussions, new social movements are configured and new forms of global engagement are tried out, the old-school media brand CNN promotes traditional ‘hardware’ projects around orphanages, free surgery and saving sloths…


  1. I think you should also critique the people and the projects.


    What kind of ideology does a person have in her head that she automatically steps into that role? What view of the capacity of the Nepalese is implied in the assumption that there is no-one in Nepal who could do it—or was already doing it—better? How did she conclude that she—with no understanding or knowledge of child protection—was competent? What about the orphanage? Did she check whether an orphanage was the best solution? (My understanding is that best practice is community-based care: not orphanages.) Did she check on the 700 other existing orphanages, to see if it might be better for her to go home, raise money, and fund places and improvements in those? Would she have done this in her own country, or would she have behaved differently back home?

    And she is their "Mom"? Sorry: I get so many alarm goings here…

    She talks about the orphans being invisible people, but to her, the whole of Nepal is invisible: at least as far being competent and capable. For most people in the developed world, the rest of the world is invisible. And I guarantee, within 100km of wherever she lived in the US, or wherever she went to university, there are people in as bad condition, or worse—but they too, it appears, were invisible, because she failed to see them

    The whole story of young White tourist starts orphanage in Third World country is too stereotypical, too degrading to the Nepalese, to pass without comment. I notice that she was chosen "by popular vote", which also means that this is the image of development preferred by mainstream CNN viewers.

    This is a big, big problem. It's not a problem with her, or her project. It's a problem with what the project represents, which is a view of the world.

  2. I totally agree with you David that Doyne winning the award sends out a very bad message in an age where volunteering/voluntourism especially when it involves orphanages/schools/children is discussed critically. I have been writing about it on the blog as well and most recently over at WhyDev (How not to write about humanitarian work - . From a research/academic perspective I am interested in the bigger picture of how global media brands perpetuate old-fashioned ideas and narratives (backpacking as eye-opener or the stereotypical 'how can this happen in America?' motivation); and notions of beneficiaries being 'invisible' or not having a 'voice' often say more about social and media blind-spots rather than actual 'invisibility'. All in all we both agree that this project should not be the winning 'hero project'-especially as it was one of only two outside the U.S.

  3. And on the other side of the coin where one Hero gets the spotlight is the suffering masses of victims helped that remain nameless and faceless, just part of the statistics. It's frustrating that so many people who do good don't see that their narcissistic type of philanthropy actually contribute more damage than good in the long run. I would like to see more reporting on the plight of the marginalized individuals, so their stories are made real, and through that, we may uncover the causes of the problems, which are often structural, and will need more than one hero to fix.


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