Most everyone has seen photographs of emaciated African children being consoled by one famous Hollywood movie star or other. Images like these are effective at moving people to donate. If success were measured solely on profits brought in, then “poverty porn” (the name for these sorts of images and stories that exploit the personal suffering caused by poverty) would indeed be a grand success.
Fundraising is not the end goal of non-profit organizations, however. With the use of these tactics, what organizations gain in funds, poor communities lose in dignity, empowerment and voice. When poverty porn saturates the media, these images become the single story told about the poor.
As part of an effort to generate discussion around (and alternatives to) the use of poverty porn as a marketing and media strategy, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on June 18. This livestream discussion touched on the problematic questions that surround the ethics and practicality of changing marketing and media approaches. Moderated by Lindsay Poirier, panelists Lina Srivastava, Ethan Zuckerman, Teddy Ruge, Linda Raftree and Charlie Beckett discussed why and how we should be moving away from poverty porn to a more dignified portrayal of the poor.
Poverty Porn’s Effects and Drawbacks: Poverty porn is effective as a means for raising funds because it elicits strong emotional responses. This can be a problem, however, because people are not necessarily driven to help or donate because of a comprehensive understanding of the actual work that’s being done, but rather by feelings of pity, sympathy, and guilt. Education systems in “the global North” don’t always teach students about the world as it exists in its entirety, they tend to rely on stereotypes that uniformly categorize “developing” countries around the world as poor, miserable, and disastrous. This sets the general public up to respond to marketing and advocacy campaigns that utilize poverty porn, and, in turn, the marketing strategy further reinforces the stereotype. Ultimately, this technique is a shortcut to getting necessary funds. It works to that end, but it does not encourage a deeper and more egalitarian human connection among different cultures, people and societies.
Power Dynamics. Power relationships are inherently at play when those with more resources help those with less. The wealthy and more powerful are generally accustomed to (and feel entitled to) making decisions about what needs to be done in the community they are helping, and, conversely, individuals or groups on the receiving end of this help may feel as if they cannot (or should not) raise their voice to speak up for what they wants to see done or what type of help they need. This is the result of a “beggars can’t be choosers” mentality, where “beneficiaries” and “recipients” are expected to feel grateful for any support given. As media outlets and ideas about what it means to be involved in aid and development work change, this mentality is being subverted by development workers and outspoken community members. For example, when the documentary Prostitutes of God was released, sex workers portrayed in the documentary were offended by how they were represented. They banded together to create a response video that quickly spread through social media channels. This type of response does not happen all the time, but as access to social media increases, there are more and more opportunities for the poor to speak up about how they are being represented.
Community Voice: One step towards improving how “the poor” are represented is trusting communities to speak for themselves. External agents need to stop dictating what community members should talk about or say or what the boundaries of their stories should be. A full story can only be conveyed through multiple points of view, but the perspective of the poor has historically been missing. Social media is playing a role in opening up some of these channels for expression and platforms for more voices. In this way, media and development agency audiences can begin getting the “full story” behind development work and life in developing countries. If stereotypes and clichés are replaced by this more ethnographic method, the wider social goals of non-profit work can be better served.
Perceptions: To bring about change, emphasis must be placed on the way development agencies look at themselves, at the individuals and communities they work with, and at the way that relationships are portrayed in marketing and media materials. The narratives of the western hero and the benevolent savior that are implicit in many poverty porn images are the immediate result of power dynamics. This notion of what it means to “help the poor” lingers in the minds of the general public, those doing aid work, and even in many communities on the receiving end of aid and development funding and projects. If the aim is to empower communities to help themselves in a sustainable way, paternalistic attitudes must be replaced by actively egalitarian partnerships. Transforming media can help to achieve this.
Metrics: An important question that panelists and the Twitter audience raised was the issue of metrics. How will we measure whether or not changes in non-profit marketing and media are having their intended effect? A current problem with metrics is that the various departments within an organization are overly specialized and siloed. Each comes up with its own way of measuring success and these are often only a part of the picture. Fundraising is only a tool to help an organization achieve its larger mission, not the end goal.
Public Involvement: The general public is very difficult to change. People may “hunger” for a certain type of story (the starving child story) and not be satisfied by images of self-sufficient communities that they imagine should be struggling and helpless. However, in most cases, their money is ultimately going towards creating longer-term structural change, not to feeding the hungry child they saw on a poster. Organizations need to find ways to help people better understand what their donation is actually doing. One way to do this may be through participatory media that involves on-the-ground communities making their own media and telling their own stories.
Realigning the public’s sentiment will be the result of widespread pedagogic and cultural change. It will be a process wider in scope than a campaign against poverty porn can accomplish alone. The public is an ever-transforming entity that is affected by history and memory, thus we need to come up with engaging, creative and dynamic strategies to involve people in our work. Contending with public perceptions is a challenge, but no meaningful change can be accomplished without a widespread effort at various levels.
Poverty porn does not only have to do with the way the West views Africa, it is an expression of classism that appears wherever those with more are helping those with less. By changing the way we manage media, we can affect the way stereotypes proliferate. Here’s a taste of a debate that will surely continue as conservative thinkers react skeptically or defensively to the prospect of progress and equality of voice from those who are viewed historically as less.
*Disclosure – Daniel is my son and he is helping us out at Regarding Humanity and Kurante for the summer. I’m not sure if this is nepotism or a normal part of running a ‘family business!’