Waylaid Dialectic

March 2, 2011

A Thought Experiment…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 9:59 am

Meanwhile, Bill Easterly elaborates on what he calls the Reciprocity Principle: don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t have them do unto you. (In comments Michael Clemens helpfully points out that this is generally known as the Silver Rule).

One of Easterly’s suggested examples of the Reciprocity Principle and how it ought to be enacted relates to ‘Poverty Porn’:

I won’t use exploitative photos of you for fund-raising unless I want you to use exploitative photos of me for fund-raising.

Which raises an interesting thought experiment: say America (or New Zealand!) was laid waste by some sort of cataclysmic event and you and your family ended up in poverty in a refugee camp somewhere over the Mexican border. After a decade or so you’d managed to carve out a niche for yourself of sorts. There was poverty and deprivation as well as risk and powerlessness, but there were also times of dignity and happiness. You’re situation wasn’t without some hope, and you had some agency, yet, nevertheless, life for you and your family was hard.

One day you were approached by a man from a Botswanan NGO, who asked whether you would mind him taking some photos of you and your family looking forlorn.

“I’m sorry” he says, “I know this isn’t the totality of your life, but unfortunately these are the type of photos that elicit the most money from people back home. I can’t promise that any of this money will reach you personally but it will help here in this community.”

What would you do? Say no and in some small way contribute to the Campaign for the Completely Accurate Representation of Poor People? Or say yes and help raise extra money?

A few weeks later a journalist from a liberal Mexican newspaper arrives with his photographer and makes the same request, saying this time that: “I know this isn’t the totality of your life, but we are trying to prompt our government to adopt a more humane policy towards our Refugiados del Norte and, unfortunately, these are the type of photos that really bring home to people the magnitude of the suffering up here.”

Once again, what would you do?

In part I’m asking these questions to illustrate the point I’ve made before: that there is another side to the poverty porn debate. But in part I’m  asking because I’m also generally interested in people’s answers. Where others see a travesty I see a dilemma, and I’m curious to know how the other participants in the poverty porn debate navigate it.

(With the caveat to that last comment being that, I’m well aware that this lonely little blog is hardly about to start a big debate, but at least it helps me develop my own thoughts…)



  1. Glad you brought this up, Terence. I too think you are right in viewing it as a dilemma. I think that I am often too quick to jump on the point of exploitation without recognizing that there is a reason why such images are used. For me, I see your post and then want to look at the root of why such images are still needed. Is there a way that stories can be told without ‘poverty porn?’ Right now, as you point out, the reality is no. I want to see how we can encourage that transition. However, the present time leaves us with a very real dilemma.

    My gut reaction is to say that if someone taking the images can explain the person having their picture taken what you have laid out in your scenario, then maybe that person can have a more complete sense of ownership of the use. To think of the post from Shotgun Shack, it would be very different if the mother knowingly approved of the use of her daughter’s image for an anti-abortion campaign. Not sure if it can be explained well to someone who has no concept of the way the image will be used, but that could be an idea to explore.

    *Also, this is no ‘little blog,’ at leas not in my opinion. Keep up the great posts. I always enjoy them.

    Comment by Tom — March 2, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  2. Thanks Tom!

    I agree with you that I’d be more comfortable with PP if the subjects explicitly gave their permission for the photos to be used in the way they are. Actually, NGOs being NGOs (i.e. often quite keen on rights based type stuff) it wouldn’t surprise me if many/some did already get this.

    Also relevant to the discussion I guess is the fact that some NGOs (such as Oxfam) do eschew PP. So I think I need to concede it is possible to do that and still solicit donations from the public. Although, having said that, the NGOs in my neck of the woods that solicit the highest amounts of public donations all do use variants of PP – so I suspect principle has a price in this respect.

    Comment by terence — March 2, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

  3. I was unfamiliar with the term Poverty Porn until today, but am intrigued by the concept and the dilemma that surrounds it. I worked in Mozambique for two years. During that time, someone sent me a television clip they had seen on TV – thinking that it would be educational for me, by CARE I believe, about Mozambique. It ran for half an hour, detailing the entire life of the girl and her family.

    Curious about my Mozambican boyfriend’s response to the video, I watched it with him to see the reaction. He was absolutely appalled that a video like that was running in the homes of Americans. I think he was ashamed that that was how his country was represented in America and that it was being done to raise funds to “help” Mozambique.

    Part of his frustration comes from the fact that their society is built on helping your own and people agreeing to be filmed are whoring themselves out. Another part was shock that we watch something like that.

    My only point in sharing this is to agree that even if someone consents to be photographed or videotaped I think it is unlikely that they understand the entirety of the situation and that it truly is a lot like porn.

    Comment by Emily — March 6, 2011 @ 8:31 am

  4. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for your comment and sorry for my delayed reply (I was away from the internet over the weekend).

    I can’t comment on comment on Mozambique or your boyfriend’s reaction specifically, as I’m really not familiar with that part of the world, but here in the Pacific (both in the poorer parts and in my home country of New Zealand) there is a real reluctance to face up to the existence of poverty. Either because it’s politically inconvenient (for local elites — especially the case in NZ) or because it sits very uncomfortably with the national pride people feel, or because it simply clashes with local myths (the myth of subsistence affluence is very strong in the Pacific) many people in the region won’t name and won’t directly face up to the social problems that exist. This is particularly prevalent amongst those who are reasonably well off.

    So what I guess I’m trying to say (in a hurry) is that a local’s adverse response to poverty porn may not be game changing evidence in the debate over the subject. If the local is reasonably well off, they won’t be benefiting from the proceeds of the activity, and on top of that they may well be more challenged by the way PP confronts their nationalism and nationalised myths.

    If a Swedish NGO was to make a fundraising movie about child poverty in Auckland, lots of New Zealanders would be up in arms. But this wouldn’t change the fact that child poverty exists there, or that those children couldn’t do with extra resources. So I guess, in a way, I wouldn’t place too much sted in the views of those New Zealanders.

    As I said though, I don’t know much about Mozambique or (of course) your boyfriend — so I can’t relate my experience directly to yours.



    Comment by terence — March 7, 2011 @ 8:09 am

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