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Posts Tagged ‘poverty porn’

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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This is a cross-post from the always thoughtful and eloquent Ian Thorpe, who notes that fundraising is a means to help non-profit organizations fulfill their wider mission; it should not be mistaken as the end goal of non-profit organizations. Consistency in how we achieve our missions across all of our operations becomes ever more important in this age of growing transparency. Read the original post here.

by Ian Thorpe

I’ve been reflecting on a couple of interesting discussions lately on aid communication and fundraising.  In the first, Kurante organized a Google Hangout on “Poverty Porn” i.e. the use of negative, shocking images in aid campaigns (the recording and the twitter storify of the discussion can be found on Tom Murphy’s blog here). During the discussion @meowtree  shared a link to this rather discouraging blog post by a fundraising guru here that suggests that those who criticize the use of negative images are undermining the organizations they work for and should be fired!

A second twitter discussion concerned a new “buy one, give one” programme and whether or not it is harmful or helpful and on what basis this type of programme might be judged.

What comes out of both of these is the potential conflict between what makes good aid versus what makes good fundraising. It’s quite possible to raise money, a lot of money, if one is willing to do whatever it takes, use any kind of images and words and tactics in order to open their wallets. Marketers and fundraisers, to give them their due, make extensive use research and evidence in their work, perhaps more so than programme people, and much research backs up the claim that negative imagery is often more successful than positive imagery in evoking a response and getting out checkbooks.

If you were a private company then “maximizing shareholder value” by going where the money is might well be a great strategy. But aid agencies and civil society organizations are generally in place to serve a mission. The mission of the organization is a huge asset both in motivating staff and in generating support – but it’s also an important constraint in that in places limits around what you will be prepared to do to raise funds or attention. Essentially, if you exist to pursue a mission then all your activities need to be consistent with it. Generally an aid mission is not simply to raise as much money as possible, it’s to achieve a purpose such as reducing poverty or protecting children from harm. And it’s often more complicated to pursue this goal to maximize the amount of positive impact on your beneficiaries – you also need to do this in a principled way informed by your organization’s values such as in respecting the human dignity of the people of the people you aim to help and not exploiting them (even if with the aim of helping them).

I recall a conversation from when I worked on communication in UNICEF with our fundraisers about a similar topic (from more than 10 years ago so I’m not spilling any secrets). At that stage the organization was looking to move more into “upstream policy work” and on scaling back on “service delivery”, especially in middle-income countries. Programmatically this made a lot of sense, but the fundraisers were naturally concerned about the impact on their ability to talk about this shift in fundraising campaigns. It’s much easier to fundraise using images of nicely branded supplies coming in on trucks being handed out by aid workers to poor people than it is to “show” work on, or the results of influencing government policy, improving data collection and building capacity of civil servants.  But at the end of the discussion we were ready to say that while it might be harder to raise money for upstream work, and we might be able to raise less money as a result – if this is the work that needs to be done, then the task was to fund better ways of fundraising about this work, rather than changing the nature of the work to make it easier to raise funds.

Of course aid organizations rely on external funding (whether government, corporate or individual) and they need professional fundraisers to be able to get the resources they need to do their work. Professional fundraisers and communicators know better than programme staff, from their experience and research, how to put together effective fundraising communications in terms of who to approach, what approaches to use and what information is needed from programme staff to support it. That can include coming up with novel approaches to raising funds for something that is already a priority, even if these appear gimmicky to aid workers on the ground (such as sending a quarter coin to people to get them to send in donations or getting them to buy something to give something).

But it’s important to ensure that the fundraising is in service of the organization’s goals rather than the reverse. It can be easy to be tempted to do something because it’s popular with donors even if it isn’t fully consistent with your mission and values, and hard to forswear potential opportunities when aid funding is tight. In particular it can be tempting to agree to programmes which are appealing to donors but for which there isn’t a demand, or worse that do unintended harm. But if the organization exists to serve a mission – then it’s important to keep that front and centre in decision-making on what opportunities to pursue or what tactics to use to pursue them – in fundraising just as much as in programmes.

In fact in an age of increasing aid transparency it becomes ever more important to focus on your mission and values since it’s much more obvious if your communications, partnerships and programmes are not consistent with each other or with your mission, and your reputation will suffer as a result –as will the cause you are pursuing.

Greater transparency is also an opportunity to bring donors and beneficiaries closer together so that donors can see and hear the results of aid work directly from those being helped rather than via a “story” whether positive or negative constructed by the aid agency for the benefit of donors. Similarly donors can also hear more from those they are helping about what they want and need, seeing them more as individuals with dignity, aspirations and agency to improve their lives aided by donors rather than as passive objects of pity and charity. This way instead of going where donors give most now, you can change the discussion to educate and encourage them to give money to where it is really needed, and to understand better what their support really does and can do.

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Imagery and stories used to frame issues of humanitarian development for advocacy and funding are often sensational and culturally disrespectful, representing those living in poverty as helpless victims in need, rather than as empowered and capable individuals.

Fueled by intense Twitter and blog discussions about this topic (which is often referred to as “Poverty Porn,”) a few years ago a number of us decided to work together to create a space for wider dialogue around issues of representation of the people that aid and development organizations support.

Screen Shot 2013-05-19 at 2.53.22 PM

Today we launch our multimedia platform Regarding Humanity or “Re: Hum.” The platform aims to engage practitioners, educators, and students in discussions on how to represent  communities we work with in relevant and respectful ways.

Re: Hum is a website and blog that explore how the way we see, listen and frame stories of “the poor” often strips individuals of their agency and creates a general sense of hopelessness and disempowerment. More respectful and relevant methods of seeing, listening and framing can help tell more nuanced stories that respect people and their complex realities.

The Re: Hum website will source content from a diverse set of authors and creators in order to bring a global perspective to the issue. It will serve as an educational resource and discussion forum to teach visual literacy, the importance of ethnography, and ways to maintain narrative integrity. We will be expanding to a discussion series, research, and an educational curriculum over time and as resources permit.

We invite you to take a quick look at Re: Hum (which is still a work-in-progress) and let us know your thoughts and suggestions on how to generate constructive conversation and learning on this issue!

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This is a summary of the May 14th Technology Salon in New York city on “Does social media exacerbate poverty porn”.

  1. MT @nidhi_c: #povertyporn is never about the beneficiary..it’s an org’s attempt to stay relevant. #techsalon
  2. RT @nidhi_c: How do we teach orgs & journalists that #povertyporn isn’t necessary to raise $ or awareness? #techsalon
  3. Fr my notes on today’s NYC #TechSalon on #povertyporn: Ppl visit Africa like it’s the zoo. Do you know the names of ppl u took photos with?
  4. #povertyporn is disempowering both to those it portrays and to those it’s aimed at, bc you only offer one solution – yours. #techsalon
  5. Telling only “positive” stories is also not the solution. Life anywhere is not only one or the other. It’s complex. #povertyporn #techsalon
  6. Great question from @meowtree & #TechSalon on #povertyporn – Do you know the names of people you take photos with?
  7. Stop hijacking people’s stories by putting your NGO/organization at the center of it. #povertyporn #techsalon
  8. transmedia storytelling is one good way to bring in more stories fr more angles to create a diverse narrative #techsalon #povertyporn
  9. Don’t need to take the western voice out. We need all the voices. But often the most vulnerable are not included. #povertyporn #techsalon
  10. Why do donors demand impact evals for ‘regular’ devt pjcts, but to prove soc med impact they’re fine w likes/clicks? #povertyporn #techsalon
  11. Where is the accountability to small individual donors/donations garnered via social media, i.e. for Kony2012? #povertyporn #techsalon
  12. Why do ppl from US photo’d during tragedy have name/story, yet ppl from other places are unknown victims? #povertyporn #techsalon
  13. Yet also, are we respecting privacy, consent and dignity when we photograph ppl in other countries? #povertyporn #techsalon
  14. Why ppl in US portrayed as heroes after tragedy (eg., Boston, 911) but not first responders in other countries? #povertyporn #techsalon
  15. How to get influentials w lrge audience (eg N Kristof) to see that external hero narrative not helpful in long term? #povertyporn #techsalon
  16. #PovertyPorn not only problem of “white” saviors/Africa. Privileged often view “the poor” this way in their own countries #techsalon
  17. Social media does not necessarily reduce the “othering” of #povertyporn. We still create our own filter bubbles #techsalon
  18. NGOs send media teams to find pre-conceived #povertyporn stories. Eg: this post by @morealtitude ht.ly/l23yQ #techsalon
  19. Diff to change existing orgs/system. But what is being done in schools re global education and media literacy? #povertyporn #techsalon
  20. Sites like everydayafrica.tumblr.com can help to overcome the #povertyporn narrative. #techsalon
  21. Or google “tumblr” and any country a hashtag (eg., #elsalvador) to find a diverse range of images, not only #povertyporn #techsalon
  22. How can we harness social media to show this range of images/realities to overcome the #povertyporn narrative? #techsalon
  23. And I’ll stop now – here’s @viewfromthecave‘s summary of this really thought provoking #techsalon on #povertyporn ht.ly/l24sJ

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Image captured from page 19 of the Polis report.

Who cares? Challenges and opportunities in communicating distant suffering: a view from the development and humanitarian sector, a study conducted by Polis, (the journalism think-tank within the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics- LSE) with Plan UKlaunched yesterday in London.
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The study complements several pieces of research released over the past year or two on the UK public’s perception of foreign aid, development, giving, and the NGO sector; including Intermedia’s Building Support for International Development, the UK Public Opinion Monitor/Institute of Development Studies’ What Does the Public Think, Know and Do about Aid and Development? report, the Oxfam/Bond/DfID Finding Frames report and the Overseas Development Institute’s Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development.

Whereas the other reports focus on various aspects of how the public sees charity, development and foreign aid, the Polis report gives a window into the debates and challenges of those working in advocacy, marketing, campaigning, fundraising and communication departments at INGOs. As my Plan UK colleague, Leigh Daynes, writes in the introduction:

‘…Our work to inform, to educate, to campaign for change and to recruit long-term supporters to fund change is valid. Often it is life-saving. Yet the least understood area of our work often is the impact of our communications on public understanding of and support for aid and development. The public are telling us they are saturated with suffering, that we are charming or disarming them into acts of compassion, and that we are abusing their emotions….

…Understanding the impact of the “lingua franca” of our industry matters because it has fuelled a template approach to the media reporting of suffering. It matters because the exponential growth in access to mobile and social media technology and platforms means we are no longer the de facto guardians we once were. And it matters because it speaks to the power between us and them, and you and me.’

As more and more research is done, the ways that the sector is shifting become clearer and I hope we will start to see some positive changes in the aid and development industry and the way it communicates with the general public.

Some angles and voices that could help round out the discussion are still missing, however. I would like to see research on the opinions of local and international staff managing programs on the ground. Most organizations have fierce internal discussions on how marketing and fundraising is done, as program staff often feel that some marketing and fundraising approaches are demeaning, disrespectful and undignified in their portrayal of program participants.  (For more on this, ask Talesfromthhood to share some of his blog posts with you, join some of the discussions on AidSource, or follow the #smartaid hash tag on Twitter). Some program staff worry that the long-term impact of media and fundraising shock tactics and overly simplistic messaging ‘cancels out’ the short-term gains achieved through program or emergency aid funding – a point that is raised in some of the research above – and that this contributes to two-dimensional views on aid and development and to the negative stereotypes about certain countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that deter longer-term development and self-determination. It would be interesting to know more from this perspective.

What do donors want? Image captured from page 9 of the report.

At the same time, INGOs are hard-pressed to come up with different and viable ways of funding their work, so this type of campaigning and fundraising continues. Although I’m familiar with some of the challenges my marketing colleagues face, I was struck seeing the kinds of donor demands that INGOs are expected to meet listed in the report. I was reminded of something a marketing colleague once said: ‘Poverty porn. That’s a good term. It is a lot like real porn. People don’t like to publicly admit to watching and responding to it, but in private it’s another story. People say they don’t like poverty porn and sad, desperate stories, but when you look at the numbers, it’s what makes them reach into their pockets and give.’

I would also like to see some research with the subjects (unfortunately often presented as ‘objects’) of INGO aid and marketing materials.  How do program participants feel about how they are portrayed? What impact does it have on them and their own perspectives and self-determination, if any? Strong voices on this come from diaspora communities and from blogs such as Africa is a Country, Uganda 2012: Trending Our Own Stories, and great projects like My Africa Is; but I’d also like to see some in-depth research and objective focus groups that talk with those who are most often shown in INGO marketing. Are people aware of how they are being represented? Do they care? Many of us speculate about this when we bash ‘poverty porn’ but I’ve yet to see published research that involves actual ‘beneficiaries’ of INGO programs or people and communities appearing in INGO marketing and fundraising pieces in this discussion. (Maybe I’ve missed it – if you know of  any, please share!)

The ‘Who Cares’ report notes in the conclusion that:

  • transparency, accountability, ‘value for money,’ and impact are becoming more important to the donor public
  • public trust is a central concern for NGOs in their work and their communications
  • the sector needs to assume more collective responsibility for ethically appropriate portrayal of disaster victims (eg, in compliance with Article 10 of the Red Cross Red Crescent Code of Conduct)
  • new technologies and competition mean that fundraisers are seeking supporters outside of their traditional constituencies
  • traditional gatekeepers of aid are being challenged by new media’s ability to put donors and ‘beneficiaries’ in more direct contact

As INGO institutional leadership space opens up to more people from ‘the global South’, diaspora communities grow, social media allows for commercials and fundraising appeals to reach global audiences (including people in the countries where INGOs implement their programs), attention is paid to the ‘new bottom billion‘ and new fundraising mechanisms arise (for example, INGOs raising funds within countries where they are implementing programs), it will be interesting to see how the conversations and approaches shift and change — or if they remain the same with new actors taking on the same challenges.

Stay tuned for further research and reporting over the next couple of years from Polis and download the report here.

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