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5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person

5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person

This post originally appeared on Emily from Charm City and ONE.org, and is reprinted here with permission.

By Emily Roenigk

Generally, the objectification and exploitation of human beings in the media bothers us. At least to some degree, we are bothered when media simplify humans, women and men, down to the characteristics that can be used to prove a point, elicit a high emotional response and generate profit. We see this in advertising, movies, pornography.

There is a similar problem with the way we represent the poor in our media, exploiting their condition and even their suffering for financial gain. As we often do with the objectification of women, we need to pause and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of a human being to Western audiences for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience and, ultimately, money. It is a practice called poverty porn, and it does almost nothing to address the real structural problem of poverty. Here are five major issues with this common practice:

1. Poverty porn misrepresents poverty.

According to critic Diana George, organizations have a hard time convincing Western audiences that real poverty exists outside their day-to-day life in a culture that is completely saturated with images. She writes that showing extreme despair may seem like the only solution. Poverty porn shows grotesque crises, often through individual stories, that audiences can easily mend through a simple solution or donation. Poverty porn makes a complex human experience understandable, consumable and easily treatable.

2. Poverty porn leads to charity, not activism.

According to George, poverty porn leads to charity, not activism: donors, not advocates. Poverty porn fails to produce both a deeper understanding of the issue of poverty and the necessary structural changes that must occur to effectively address it. Instead, poverty porn says that material resources are the problem and the solution, where poverty can be addressed through a simple phone call or monthly donation.

To be clear, this kind of giving has the potential to make significant impacts, once in the hands of organizations that address poverty in a sustainable way. However, it perpetuates dangerous ideologies along the way that do more harm than good. It tells the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries, and it tells financially secure donors that they are the saviors. In this dynamic, donors are told that they are the only ones with the ability to make a difference. Nothing is said about what it would look like to empower the poor and walk alongside them to help them realize their inherent ability to be the change agents in their own communities.

Gary Haugan, President & CEO of International Justice Mission and co-author Victor Boutros recently released The Locust Effect, a compelling book about why the end of poverty requires the end of violence. Haugan addresses this necessary shift from treating the symptoms of poverty to treating poverty itself.

He writes, “The history of the world’s effort to fight severe poverty is largely a story of seeing what’s obvious and simple and trying to do something about it, and in the process, discovering the hidden and complex realities of poverty, and then trying to re-engineer solutions that better fit those realities.”

3. Poverty porn misrepresents the poor. 

George writes, “In such images, poverty is dirt and rags and helplessness.” In reality, poverty has “many faces” and no simple solution. Poverty doesn’t only look like a starving child with flies on his face. In fact, poverty doesn’t look any particular way. It is multi-faceted and should be depicted as such. Reporter Tom Murphy writes, “Suffering is a part of poverty, as is good news, as is a family sitting down for a meal.”

Women in Burundi work together to save money and provide loans to one another so they can buy land, start micro enterprises and support their families. Photo by Sean Sheridan for World Relief.
Women in Burundi work together to save money and provide loans to one another so they can buy land, start micro enterprises and support their families. Photo by Sean Sheridan for World Relief.

Poverty is holistic, affecting the whole person and not just what is seen. In their book When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert explain that the helper and the helped define poverty very differently. Most North American audiences define poverty by physical suffering and a lack of material resources, while the poor define their condition psychologically and emotionally. They use words like shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness.

Additionally, poverty porn becomes competitive because organizations must constantly convince audiences that they are dealing with the most needy or the “deserving poor,” as opposed to the “undeserving poor,” according to George. It is about staying relevant and attractive to donors, and it is almost never about the subject, writes critic Lina Srivastava.

4. Poverty porn deceives the helper and the helped.

One of the biggest problems with poverty porn is that it is incredibly successful at empowering the wrong person. It does this in two ways. First, poverty porn tells donors that, because of their position in society and because of their resources, they have the ability to be the saviors in vulnerable communities they might know nothing about. It fails to awaken Western audiences to the mutual need for transformation they share with their poor brothers and sisters and instead perpetuates dangerous paternalism.

Second, poverty porn debilitates the helped. Poverty porn objectifies its subjects, defining them by their suffering and stripping them of the vital components of all human life – agency, autonomy and unlimited potential. Advertisements and marketing materials depicting the suffering of the poor and soliciting financial support may inadvertently tell subjects that they are indeed helpless beneficiaries, dependent on the support of the wealthy for any lasting transformation.

In reality, successfully addressing poverty means empowering the poor to transform their own communities, even admitting our own inadequacy and ignorance in understanding the true nature of poverty. I have the honor of working for World Relief, a humanitarian agency committed to empowering the local Church to serve vulnerable groups around the world. I love the words of World Relief President & CEO Stephan Bauman in the book Shared Strength when he writes, “Seeking ways to allow the poor to become helpers or actors in their own community change represents the difference between a program and a movement.”

5. Poverty porn works.

There’s a reason this depiction of poverty has become so popular among humanitarian aid organizations. When it comes to profitability, poverty porn delivers on its promise. Murphy explains that NGO marketing and communications teams are producing these messages because they have been proven effective through rigorous testing. In fact, audiences are more likely to make a financial donation when an ad shows a child that is suffering, rather than happy and healthy. At the end of the day, poverty porn is the result of well-meaning organizations attempting to raise money for their programs, and it works.

This raises an important question – is the profitability of poverty porn worth the perpetuation of false ideologies and stereotypes? I say no. This may sound counterintuitive to the capitalist nature of Western culture, but it’s really not. Sustainable change in poor communities is more than the sum of its financial donations. According to Srivastava, if we want to truly transform communities so they are economically and socially just, we have to create avenues for their voices to be heard. We cannot impose our constructs on them.

Do you think “poverty porn” perpetuates stereotypes? Tell us in a comment below.

Emily Roenigk is the Social Media Coordinator for World Relief, a global humanitarian organization committed to empowering the local Church to serve the most vulnerable. She blogs about a variety of topics, both personal and professional, including the role of the media in shaping public perception of poverty and other complex, global issues. You can follow her on Twitter.

Featured image shows a local church in Rwanda building a new home for a family in their community. Photo by Sean Sheridan for World Relief.

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9 thoughts on “5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person

  1. […] by empathizing with Black as an individual and what ‘selfless’ act he is performing. A 2015 article by Emily Roenigk, suggests that poverty porn (including this video clip) leads to charity but not […]

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  4. Bang on! Thank you for articulating the polarization of the human experience and the very real ways that it disempowers already marginalized groups of people.

    I’ve witnessed a sea-change happening in the non-profit circles I’m engaging with that are grappling with setting in motion an iterative process involving relationship-building, collaborative leadership, asset-based community development.

    🙂

  5. This is a great article. Misrepresentation is a huge issue. Mama Hope’s campaign, Stop The Pity, is a media campaign hoping to change the narrative of people in Africa from one of pity to one of hope. Watch their videos here: http://www.mamahope.org/unlock-potential/

  6. Jennifer – is there a solution – or are those of us who believe poverty porn is a negative influence that we can alter naive ?

    1. Here’s my response to another person who asked the same question…

      I found the following solutions embedded within this article:
      1. re-humanizing people experiencing poverty as agents rather than victims

      2. awareness-raising about the complexity of poverty

      3. Asset-based community development (as opposed to needs-based community development)
      “In reality, successfully addressing poverty means empowering the poor to transform their own communities, even admitting our own inadequacy and ignorance in understanding the true nature of poverty. …I love the words of World Relief President & CEO Stephan Bauman in the book Shared Strength when he writes, ‘Seeking ways to allow the poor to become helpers or actors in their own community change represents the difference between a program and a movement.’”

      4. Creating space for marginalized groups to frame, decide and implement their own solutions: “According to Srivastava, if we want to truly transform communities so they are economically and socially just, we have to create avenues for their voices to be heard. We cannot impose our constructs on them.”

      Hopefully that gives you some more food for thought.

    2. One thing I think that’s necessary is for NGOs for agree collectively not to use poverty porn anymore. Right now, there’s too much risk to individual organizations. Like Emily mentions in the 3rd point, it’s a competition – if one org stops using poverty porn, they could lose out on donations to others that do use it. Of course, that raises the issue of whether total donations would decrease if no organizations were using poverty porn (people might think there was less need for their money).

      I think I’ve also read research, though I can’t find it now, that found people were very responsive to a positive story about how an NGO helped one person overcome certain obstacles, with the frame of “Help us do the same for other people in this situation.” Showing a success story also builds confidence in the organization. Of course, that doesn’t do much for the savior narrative.. But it’s still a step up from poverty porn.

  7. I think the 5th point – poverty porn works – is really at the heart of this problem, especially for organizations that rely heavily on individual donations. How much money (and thus how many programs or how many people served) would NGOs have to forego if they used more respectful marketing? For organizations that are mainly grant-funded though, would it matter? It seems like they really have no excuse.

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