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I’ve been traveling, working and volunteering in developing countries for a long time. And while each country has its own very distinctive culture and character, there’s always one familiar sight I can count on seeing no matter where I go: the NGO vehicle.

You know what I’m talking about – the hulking Land Cruiser, complete with roof rack, black metal bars over the front grill, that ridiculously large radio antenna, and a curious contraption that runs up the driver’s side and looks like a stovepipe hat. Only recently, though, have I really noticed that every vehicle – no matter what NGO it’s owned by – is white. Completely and totally white, with only a small logo on the door to distinguish one organization from another.

stovepipe2011-05-11 at 13-58-39

Some fashions never go out of style…

Why is this? Why, in the oversaturated industry of international development, would organizations choose to blend in with one another? Wouldn’t they want to distinguish themselves and increase their brand recognition? Or, at the very least, pick a color that won’t require them to wash the vehicle after every trip to “the field”? Surely Toyota offers the Land Cruiser in colors other than Blizzard Pearl

More importantly, though, what subconscious signals do these omnipresent, all-white vehicles send to an organization’s program beneficiaries? To what extent does the sight of these vehicles reinforce the stereotype of “the white man” coming to save the “poor people” in developing countries? What message do they send about the supposedly “pure” motives of what Teju Cole calls “The White-Savior Industrial Complex“? I may be overreaching here, but it’s important to consider how seemingly innocuous choices may be subtly perpetuating the very stereotypes and inequalities that we in the international development are trying to eliminate.

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2 thoughts on “Whitewash

  1. Jen – a valid point, indeed. Dad and I have noticed that the popular color of choice for a vehicle in our neck of the woods is either white or black. Very boring. 😦

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