Waylaid Dialectic

December 6, 2010

In praise of ‘poverty porn’

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 7:13 pm

Along with just about everyone else in the development blogosphere, Matt at (the almost always excellent) Aid Thoughts, decries the existence of ‘poverty porn’. That is, photos of people in developing countries that portray or imply helplessness and a need for external assistance, typically used by media organisations or NGOs soliciting donations.

As I said, most every development blogger out there is agin it, yet try as I might, I really struggle to get wound up about the issue.

The pictures may be distasteful, they may be inaccurate, but what harm do they actually do?

You can argue that they perpetuate particular stereotypes about particular parts of the world but really? More so than the actual news headlines emanating from these places? And even if these pictures do influence opinions does that actually lead to any harm for people living in the countries in question? The only way I could think it would, would be if it led to anti-developmental foreign policy positions taken by developed country governments responding to popular pressure from people who’d viewed ‘those photos’. But does anyone actually think this really happens? That poverty porn explains EU trade tariffs, for example? Please.

On the other hand, I presume the shots are good fund-raising tools for those NGOs that use them. Which, assuming they spend it well (and granted that’s an if), ultimately ends up helping people in developing countries. Is this something that should be sacrificed because such photos in some way offend our sense of taste?

Just to be clear – I do think the photos are distasteful in a sense. And I wish we lived in a world where it didn’t take a certain type of image to elicit moral actions from people. But we don’t. And NGOs and campaigners and the like have to work with the world they’ve got, not the one we all wish we had…

And while we’re at it, could we perhaps loose the term ‘poverty porn’. It’s inaccurate, and trivialises the real harm caused by real pornography.

Advertisements

11 Comments

  1. My thought on these kinds of pics has always been – would the people in them agree to this? As in “this picture will make you look sad and helpless but will also bring money into your community.” Most people would say yes. But I feel like we should ask them, explicitly.

    Comment by Alanna — December 6, 2010 @ 7:36 pm

  2. Here’s the harm that they do:

    All aid agencies: NGOs, bilaterals, multilaterals, have at some point to satisfy the “average punter”, as we call the man/woman on the street in Australia. NGOs have to satisfy individual donors; bilaterals have to satisfy taxpayers; multilaterals have to satisfy national politicians, who may themselves be average punters, or in turn have to satisfy them.

    The average punter has an image of what poverty is, and what aid is supposed to do. When that image is grossly inaccurate, it distorts the aid process and the development process. Take Aceh. Really, reconstruction should have been allowed to take 10 years, to be done well. Instead, all kinds of bad construction was done because of public pressure to get things done quickly, driven by public outrage (call it ignorance) that things weren’t happening fast enough, driven in turn by pictures and selective stats: but no understanding or depth of reportage.

    Poverty porn is not the sole agency of distortion: it’s just one of them. And if we’re going to remove the sources of distortion, we may as well start with poverty porn, because its a very visible source.

    Comment by David Week — December 6, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by davidweek and davidweek, Alanna Shaikh. Alanna Shaikh said: In praise of poverty porn https://waylaiddialectic.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/in-praise-of-poverty-porn/ […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention In praise of ‘poverty porn’ « Waylaid Dialectic -- Topsy.com — December 6, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

  4. Terence,

    Thanks for initiating some debate on this – I think I address most of your arguments in my original post on poverty porn here:

    http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69

    if I can find the time I’ll try and write up something new!

    Matt

    Comment by Matt — December 6, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  5. Terence, poverty porn might benefit the people being exploited in the short term (and you yourself know that benefit can be questionable at times) but what it does is to disenfranchise them in the long term. I am going to be very concrete from personal experience. ‘Poverty porn’ affects the self esteem of the people portrayed in the pictures. I am Ugandan and before I actually travelled out of Uganda, I was like many other Ugandans who thought I was in the worst possible situation without any hope of a decent life if I did not go to work somewhere in Europe or America where all those ‘saviour’ aid workers came from. Funny thing, I grew up in a city with electricity, running water and clothes on my back, four meals a day, pocket money from my parents everyday, a bicycle when I was a child.. the list goes on. I had a ‘normal’ childhood so why the hell did I think that I was poor and doomed? While it was perhaps not the only source, I believe ‘poverty porn’ contributes to this perception of africans of themselves and the focus becomes either a dependency on development aid for ‘much needed’ help or to leave the country. A negative self esteem has far reaching consequences. One of them is accepting whatever is being heaped upon you because you believe the westerner knows better.

    Of course it also affects the perception of the rest of the world towards africans. I am a computer science graduate and you cannot imagine how many times I have been asked the question “an african doing computer science, why?” the implication being there are no computers there.. of course because all the people are too busy surviving starvation to be studying. And while this is an irritation for me (and not a minor one anymore), I can’t imagine how the people in positions to make serious policy decisions that affect african lives, make them with a certain pre-conceived image of what the quintessential african life is like.

    so YES YES YES poverty porn is destructive and in my opinion way more destructive than it is beneficial!

    Comment by muloem — December 7, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  6. Thanks Alanna, David, Matt, and Muloem for your thought-provoking comments.

    And sorry – I’m flying home to NZ today, so my reply’s shorter than I’d like.

    Alanna, I agree, I’d be more comfortable if people were asked too. I guess the problem is, in practice, this is pretty difficult. So we live in a second best world and, weighing up the pros and cons, even if people aren’t asked, I’m still inclined to think the pros outweigh the cons.

    David, that’s an excellent comment: thanks. And I take the point (and am living in Canberra at present so know what you mean when you say punter). I’ve got another post brewing about poor public understanding of development so will discuss this further. My short answer is that yes aid would be better if publics in developed countries had a better understanding of what was involved. And yes PP probably skews people’s understandings. But so do a lot of other things. And I’m not sure that if you removed all the PP the average punter (who let’s face it spends about 5 minutes a year thinking about development) would actually end up better informed.

    Matt, thanks, hadn’t read that post – it’s a goody. I like the Oxfam quote particularly.

    Muloem, thank you, that’s a perspective I hadn’t considered before and it’s certainly shifted my thinking somewhat. My question for you is, if poverty porn’s an issue for some individuals, do you really think it’s a key factor driving the problems of Uganda (for example) via it’s impacts on the thoughts and actions of Ugandans? To be honest I’m not so sure (although, I’m not certain the other way either and do definitely value your perspective on it). And if any type of ‘porn’ has the impact you suggest, wouldn’t it more likely be ‘affluence porn’ – the misleading images of the developed world and the joys of consumerism, that are propagated in developing countries???

    Thanks again everyone.

    Comment by terence — December 7, 2010 @ 5:22 am

  7. […] There’s been a lot discussion in the development blogosphere lately about fundraising and the images we use to trigger donations. It’s a serious conversation, and one that interests me. Exactly how much damage do we do when we use condescending portrayals of poor people in NGO ads? Tales from the Hood has an interesting take on it. So does the Good Intentions Are Not Enough blog. Aid Thoughts has a whole series, and Waylaid Dialectic has the iconoclastic view. […]

    Pingback by Blood and Milk » Blog Archive » Fundraising and who does it — December 10, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

  8. Hi Terence,

    I’m with you. Yes there are problems with poverty porn, but I don’t think its going to go away any time soon, and, as you point out, there can be some significant benefits. Secondly, it is only part of a much wider set of misconceptions and stereotypes about poor people. I think the real solution is, by word and deed, to fail to live up to these stereotypes, see my post earlier this year: http://bottomupthinking.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/africans-are/.

    MJ

    Comment by MJ — December 13, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

  9. Terence,

    Poverty porn is not a key factor driving the problems but rather it is hindering what could be more effective solutions. Andrew Mwenda, Ugandan journalist put it very well when he said, “if you say Africa’s problem is ‘poverty reduction’ you get aid and development workers. If you say Africa’s problem is ‘job creation’ then you instead get investors and business people” And it is a fact that a lot of the problems in places where development work is being carried out would be solved with business investments and job creation etc.. people would work for the money they need. And this is where the answer to MJ’s comment / blog post above comes in. He argues that everybody has stereotypes about them, point accepted. But the stereotypes of Americans being overbearing, or chinese people being inscrutable do not prevent investment. However, the stereotype of Africans being poor, corrupt, war mongers definitely hurts any kind of investment ideas. In this sense we have to complain loudly and vocally because for a very long time other people have been telling stories about us that they thought shall help but are instead hurting us.

    Comment by muloem — December 13, 2010 @ 8:01 pm

  10. Muloem,

    My guess is that whilst at the margin some investment decisions may go against Africa because of poverty porn, far more go against it because of poor infrastructure, uneducated and unhealthy workforce, and dubious governance, i.e. all the reasons that poverty porn is produced in the first place. That is to say, that fixing those problems will have a far bigger effect on FDI than reducing poverty porn.

    However, it also sounds as if you are a walking, talking advert for the positive achievements possible in Africa. The misconceptions that are dispelled when you meet someone will be far more powerful than simply dialling down the poverty porn a bit. It is this kind of thing that motivates people to overcome their prejudices. And my guess is that once upon a time, yes, China missed out on FDI because of their reputation for inscrutability, but they have since overcome that in spectacular fashion. This should be the message to Africa.

    MJ

    Comment by MJ — December 14, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  11. As an NGO fundraiser, I’m grateful for this conversation- with much more to absorb at this point than to contribute…but for you practitioners who have the time to check it out, here’s our website, how do you think we’re doing, from a poverty porn perspective? http://www.plantwithpurpose.org
    D

    Comment by doug — December 26, 2010 @ 4:05 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: