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Archive for the ‘poverty porn’ Category

I had a few welcome breaks from my habitual ‘learning’ zone this past month — got away from workshops, conferences, panels, academic reports, meetings, articles and posts for a bit and popped into a little art, comedy and fiction.

Art

Marlene Dumas’ superb exhibit at the Tate Modern in London is called ‘The Image as Burden‘ (it’s on till May 10 so go check it out!). It’s quite relevant for those of us thinking about poverty porn and ethical use of image and narrative in development work, especially Black Drawings. The description of the piece said that she found old photos of Africans, usually taken by anthropologists or colonizers, and where the focus was almost always on black bodies, not on persons, and where individuals were never named. She enlarged the photos and painted close-ups of the faces as portraits, re-focusing on the individuality and humanity of each person.

As I stood there absorbing the wall of faces, it struck me that no amount of ranting and preaching to people about the single story narrative or the way that Africans and the poor are so often stereotyped and filmed and photographed as objects rather than subjects can really bring the point home like this.

Dumas also has a moving piece called Great Men, where she’s done portraits of famous men in history who were gay, using a similar technique of close up painted portraits, here each with a short biography.

Comedy

Last week, I went to my second stand-up comedy show from America Meet World, where comedians from different countries showcase their craft to US audiences. Trina Das Gupta, who has always been irritated by poverty porn and the aid industry’s single story penchant, runs the production. She started it as a way to lower cultural barriers and introduce the ‘rest of the world’ to Americans. What better way than comedy, she figured. When she told me about her idea a few years ago, I wondered how comedy would translate — they always say humor is cultural, but her strategy is proving to be brilliant. The two shows I hit were hilarious, and I don’t normally follow comedy. The Daily Show is also embracing the idea of a more globalized comedy in the US, with their recent choice of Trevor Noah to replace Jon Stewart. Comedy, when done right, is so good for pointing out absurdities and making you think about yourself and your culture in different ways. (It’s even better when you go out dancing afterwards.)

Fiction

J. (formerly @talesfromthhood) just put out his latest book, one of the very few in the genre of ‘humanitarian fiction’. This is J’s third novel and he’s firmly settling into the role of writer. In Honor Among Thieves, he introduces readers to likable characters struggling to be ethical in their various roles as development workers. By exploring the challenges and obstacles that people at different levels and in different sides of the industry face, he helps those already inside the industry and those just getting into it to deepen their understandings of the contradictions inherent in the aid system. It would be great reading for some of the journalists and aid critics who like to bash individual aid and development practitioners without understanding the trade-offs they often have to make. The book is entertaining and easy to get through on a plane ride. It critiques the industry but in a more fun and accessible way than articles and posts from academics and journalists and aid critics. (If Honor Among Thieves is too serious, the old fallback ‘Disastrous Passion‘ explores many of the same themes but takes the form of a ‘humanitarian romance novel’, with hilariously over the top sex scenes to break up any serious talk).

We need more art and edutainment

We could classify all these as ‘edutainment’. I looked up the term to see how long ‘edutainment’ has been around. According to Wikipedia, it’s about 50 years.

Since the 1970s, various groups in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Latin America have used edutainment to address such health and social issues as substance abuse, immunization, teenage pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, and cancer.

Parables and fables have been around for quite a bit longer the entry notes (obviously). And of course fairy tales and nursery rhymes sneak advice and warnings inside of clever poems, songs and stories. Some might say that the sacred texts of the world’s major religions are edutainment. But at the risk of offending, I will keep quiet about that.

It’s kind of funny that we (meaning ‘we aid and development people’) like to use edutainment to achieve behavior change with ‘the poor’ but we don’t do nearly enough of it with ourselves and our donor publics.  I, for one, think we need more edutainment. More Fail Fests (comedy plus theater). More satire like Africa for Norway and Tim’s Revolutionary One for One campaign. More shows like The Samaritans and blogs like Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like.

More, more, more!

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Last Friday I had the opportunity to share a panel discussion on “Designing New Narratives: from poverty porn to agency” with Leah Chung, Maharam Fellow and RISD student, and Victor Dzidzienyo, Associate Dean of the College of Engineering Architecture and Computer Sciences at Howard University. The panel was part of the “A Better World by Design” Conference planned and run by a committee of students from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, here in Providence.

Photo from http://www.affenstunde.com article on One Laptop Per Child.

I was responsible for setting the stage and moderating, wearing my Regarding Humanity hat. I showed a number of images and narratives that I find questionable – from aid agency fundraising campaigns to children receiving free shoes to famous musicians visiting Ethiopia to models posing in front of poor children to photos of them with imported technological “solutions”. The theme of the conference was “Pause and Effect.” My point was that we should pause and think about the long-term effects of these kinds of images and narratives on people we say we are helping, supporting or partnering with. Beyond fundraising, advocacy and branding for our organizations, what is the impact of these narratives? What long-term effects do they have when there is no strong competing narrative or variety of narratives that enable a more complex, nuanced and varied story?

Some of the ways that we can help change the narrative include:

Leah followed, sharing highlights from research she conducted this summer in Uganda on what Ugandans think about how they and Africans in general are represented in the Western media. With support from Hive Co-Lab, Leah and her research partner, Joseph Wanda, researched how people working in local NGOs and living in rural communities and informal settlement areas view ads like these:

People were asked which of these images they would prefer in a fundraising campaign. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Perhaps not surprisingly, a large percentage of the adults interviewed said they preferred the sad photo, because it would be more effective at showing a story of need and raising funds. Interestingly, however, 66% of the children and adolescents interviewed preferred the happy one. Leah said  that a good number of people used the opportunity of her presence to include a story of their own needs and a personal appeal for funding or help during the interview process

Adults selected the sad image more often, whereas children and adolescents selected the happy one. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Which of these images would you prefer for a fund-raising campaign? Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Overall, 76% of people Leah and Joseph interviewed said that they were not happy with the way that Africa is represented in the Western world.

The majority of people who participated in the study were unhappy with how Africa is represented in the "Western" world. (Image courtesy of Leah Chung)

Image courtesy of Leah Chung

Leah noted that through her research, she grew to understand that images are only the symptom of deeper dysfunction within the aid industry and its colonial legacy. She also noted that people all over the world hold stereotypes about others. She was viewed as someone bringing in resources to help, and called “Chinese,” although she is actually Korean.

Victor continued the topic by sharing his own story of living in DC as a child, and being one of the people that others wanted to come in to help. “For you as the outsider who comes in to save me, I have some questions,” he said. “For the folks who want to go on a ‘free trip’ to help, my question is: you are going there for what? What are the skill sets that you have that can make a difference? If you don’t have a skill set to offer, you should just stay home.” He recommended hiring local people for the various jobs needed during reconstruction after a disaster rather than sending over students with limited understanding of the local context and limited skills to work in it.

Victor emphasized the similarities in architectural design and designing programs aimed at helping after a flood or an earthquake. For both, a good understanding of the environment, the cultural context, the complexity of social structures, and the local beliefs and norms is required. He questioned whether academic institutions are doing enough to prepare students for working in these environments.

The ensuing comments and discussions made their way across a variety of related topics, with active participation from the room:

  • What can media and development professionals do to support agency? How can we move beyond satire and critique? The bullet points above are a start but what else can be done? We need to change our language, for one thing, and stop using phrases like “we are empowering people, giving them a voice, giving them agency.” We also need to remember that using poverty porn takes away agency from those who donate. The entire cycle is disempowering.
  • Local people are not passive in this: Communities and individuals can be very adept at manipulating this system. Local NGOs also have their own agendas and the aid industry also ties them in knots and makes it difficult for them to function, to be effective and to have a real impact.
  • How issues are framed and by whom matters. There is a great deal of exposure to the Western world and its viewpoints, and often the issues and narrative are framed by outsiders. Local work does not get the spotlight and credit, it’s normally sexy graphic design and social media campaigns like Kony 2012.
  • Should we help locally or internationally? The issues and problems in the world are global problems and they are interlinked at the global level, so where a person helps is not the issue. Location matters less than the underlying motives and levels of respect for people’s own agency, and level of ownership that local people have in the process. Going in to help a community in your own neighborhood or country that you do not understand or that you view as ‘lesser’ is not much different than doing that in a community abroad.
  • Poverty porn is a symptom of much larger issues in the international aid and development industry. The causes go much deeper and require a major shift in a number of areas.
  • Is it possible to change things or do we need to start over? Do we need a new model? It’s likely that international aid and development organizations will be disrupted and disintermediated by a number of forces and changes happening right now, from social entrepreneurs to global economic and power changes to technology to changes in “developing” country economies and attitudes. The problems are not going to go away and the market is not working for everyone, but the nature of how we address these issues will most likely change.
  • Poverty porn is profitable, how can we change this? How can we make the idea of agency and elevating other voices as profitable as poverty porn? How can we take a more comprehensive look at the system and where it’s not working? How can we change what the general public responds to and switch the general consciousness of people who care to a new way of looking at things? How can we re:see, re:listen and re:frame the narrative and get people excited about stories from people who know and live these issues? As intermediaries, our job is to provide platforms and to work to make these voices visible, not to tell other people’s stories. Can we engage people better by showing impact and change rather than miserable situations that victimize and provoke feelings of guilt?
  • Sharing and dialogue is one way that people can learn from each other and build strength in numbers to change things. Supporting “south-south” discussion and learning is key, as is discussion and dialogue between policy makers and practitioners.
  • People (we) need to be aware of their (our) own privilege. People give out of guilt. Until they (we) understand their (our) own power and privilege and step out of it, we will never move forward. Educational institutions confirm and allow people to benefit from their privilege. Going on a semester abroad to “help” people ends up looking good on a student’s resume and helping them, in the end, get a job, not really helping those they went to “help.” So the volunteer ends up getting wealthy from these situations, in a way.
  • Empathy matters, but how do we take it a step further than sleeping outside for a night to understand homelessness? Do these small efforts towards empathy add up to a larger awareness and behavior change, or are they meager attempts to experience life as “the other” without a real examination of power and privilege? How do we take this conversation a step wider also and look at how the West perpetrates and causes poverty by our own policies and consumption patterns?

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