AN OPEN LETTER TO PLAN INTERNATIONAL
Dear Plan International,
We are writing this letter because one of our aim as an organisation is to influence and encourage other organisations and institutions working in multicultural, in this case development, field to implement feminist and anti-racist principles in their work. We feel that, as the following shows, there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to seeing these principles truly be represented in the organisations in question.
Last fall Plan International Finland released a campaign that aimed at raising awareness of childhood pregnancies. The campaign portrayed a pregnant 12-year-old black Zambian girl named Fridah in maternity clothes. The clothes were designed by a Finnish fashion designer Paola Suhonen and the campaign photographs were taken by Meeri Koutaniemi. Both Suhonen and Koutaniemi are renowned and celebrated in their respective fields (of design and photography). According to Plan International Finland the idea of the campaign was to create a maternity collection that shouldn’t exist. In the campaign making of video (now deleted by Plan Finland) Paola Suhonen describes that the design of the clothes was to portray a “Hampton’s feel”. Also in the video the black girl, Fridah, whose tragedy is supposed to bring light to the whole issue in question, is paradoxically on a “supporting role” only to highlight the presence and work of the two white celebrity women.
The most vocal critic of the campaign has been dr. Faith Mkwesha, a researcher in gender studies at Åbo Academi University and Executive director of the non-profit organisation Sahwira Africa. In her article “Why were we not outraged? #ProtectBlackGirlsToo” published on the online media Ruskeat tytöt, dr. Mkwesha writes that:
“The failure to see African black girls as children who deserve protection is evident and seems to become a habit. This can be seen as dehumanizing the traumatized girl. It is racist because it perpetuates prejudices and negative stereotypes of black girls and women as hypersexualized and promiscuous.”
We at Fem-R agree with dr. Mkwesha that the campaign represents a narrative which is colonialist and racist. Adding to that, it raises the question does Plan International Finland understand all aspects of their obligation to
“Prevent harm and keep children and young people safe and protected” (Plan International’s website)
We feel that Plan International Finland has failed to truly understand and implement necessary actions according to the critique raised by dr. Mkwesha and others about the campaign. Also we are concerned whether Plan International Finland is able to see the consequences of their work on racialised and brown people both in Finland and the Global South.
So we ask:
Is Plan International aware of the content of the campaign in question and does it consider the campaign to represent the values of the organisation?
If so, is Plan International aware of the criticism Plan International Finland has received considering the campaign and given that it is aware, is Plan International satisfied with Plan International Finland’s utterly insufficient response to the critique?
Plan International Finland defended portraying Fridah in the campaign by saying that they had asked the permission from Fridah herself and also from her parents. Is this really a sufficient argument for Plan International? How does Plan International morally justify using people in their advertising campaigns that are dependent of financial and other aid provided by Plan International to their communities?
It is time that the actors working in the field of development aid take true responsibility of the imagery and narratives of racialised people that they portray in their campaigns. We no longer are willing to accept to see brown and racialised people presented as passive beings filled with problems. The world faces grave issues and there are people all over the world that live under circumstances that demand attention. The moral accountability that the “aid giver” faces must be held on a very high standard.
It is absolutely crucial that Plan International and other organisations like it go through the critique they receive very carefully and take necessary actions and make necessary changes according to that critique. Especially, taking in consideration the historical context, when it comes from brown and racialised people.