This post originally appeared on Rachel Kurzyp’s blog.
Save the Children Australia’s new ad (which has recently been removed from YouTube) is a blast from the past but not in a good way. It is a reminder of how far we’ve come from stereotyping the poor and Africa, and choosing to use images of children dying to trigger people to put their hands in their pockets and give. It’s a sad day when an international NGO uses poverty porn because while it may give them much-needed funds it goes against obtaining long-term aid and development goals.
Here are five reasons why I think Save the Children Australia’s ad is bad.
Misinformation not education
I thought we had moved away from the paternalistic narrative of ‘poor Africa’: a continent filled with starving, hopeless souls in need of saving and intervention from the Western world. While historically this kind of narrative has been used by NGOs for fundraising, with success, it is no longer accepted in the international development community. Why? Because this kind of narrative creates stereotypes and these stereotypes continue to exist even when the situation improves, which it has.
Communication pieces like this one also contribute to the White Saviour Industrial Complex, that is, the idea that the most important principle of ‘doing good work’ is about making a tangible difference i.e. raising money to help people in Africa. In fact, the most important principle in development and aid work is ‘do no harm’ – a principle worth revisiting with the rise of voluntourism.
I think that narratives such as these do more harm than good because they misinform the public not educate them. Where is the information around the cause of poverty, or why “children are dying in their mother’s arms”? Where is the information on how Save the Children Australia is going to fix the cause not just the symptoms (“emergency food and vaccines”)? In fact, where are the beneficiaries even in Africa? We aren’t told any of this. This is why I feel the organisation fails to do one of its most important duties, to educate the public on the complex and interrelated issues of poverty and aid.
Total disrespect for human rights
The Australian Code for International Development (ACFID) Code of Conduct states that organisations should avoid messages that portray people as pitiful rather than active participants in their daily lives. The code also states NGOs must not convey messages that tell the donor they need to save people from death.
Narratives such as this one objectify their subjects defining them by their suffering and depriving them of the vital components of all human life – agency, autonomy, dignity, strength and unlimited potential. Imagine the worst day of your life or the most ill you have ever been. Think about how you would feel to have a camera in your face asking you and your family questions about your suffering. I can’t imagine anything more humiliating, intrusive or soul-destroying. We comment about how ruthless the media is towards celebrities but we don’t say enough about the rights of nameless, starving children in Africa depicted in ads like this.
Letting donors and fundraising dictate
Communications such as this make people question aid and the development sector with good reason. The sector is dependent on funds, there’s no denying this fact. Therefore, fundraising and donors often hold the power and mould the work of NGOs, causing them to market themselves in ways that will appeal to funders and spend most of their time seeking funding sources. This ultimately results in NGOs, like Save the Children Australia, no longer being accountable to the poor.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. NGOs need to change the way they raise funds. They need to accept funds on their own terms and start looking beyond traditional donors to gain the financial support they need. They also need to start telling better stories. NGOs are trusted with the responsibility to speak on behalf of the poor, by the poor, and ads like this show that NGOs need to do a better job.
Using Poverty Porn is not ok
Poverty porn, otherwise known as development porn, is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause. Stereotypically poverty porn is associated with Africans, specifically children with swollen bellies, flies on their face and laying in dirt helplessly waiting to die of starvation – does this sound familiar?
I disagree. Poverty porn leads to charity not activists. Narratives like this one, as mentioned above, do little to educate the public of the realities of the world they live in. It simply reiterates to the poor that they are helpless beneficiaries and it tells financially secure donors that they are the saviours. It also puts one face to poverty. Poverty does not have one face it is multifaceted and needs to be depicted this way. Poverty porn also makes a complex and grotesque situation, often a child about to die, seem easily fixed through a small donation, which I noted earlier shouldn’t be done. Communications like this make a human experience understandable and consumable as if you are watching a scene from a movie about an apocalyptic world far away.
The main reason why I feel poverty porn is ultimately never justifiable is that organisations are forced to become competitive. They must convince the public that they are dealing with the ‘most needy’ and ‘deserving poor’. And because of this, the communication is never about the subject but instead about attracting donors. Which I believe directly works against aid and development’s long-term goals.
Preference on short-term wins
Save the Children Australia is an international NGO who should know better. I’ve worked for them. I know they do good work. So why would they choose to use poverty porn? The only reason I can think of is they are trying to get people to become child sponsors, as they have just launched their child sponsorship program. Advertising that triggers feelings of guilt and pity will work in the short run, but where is the focus on long-term goals?
Using poverty porn becomes a problem when the organisation does want to educate their supporters because now they have to re-educate them about the complexities of poverty and aid. Through this process, NGOs run the risk of potentially losing their supporters because they become disillusioned or confused about the organisation’s work and purpose.
Like all good development work, it takes time to build support for a new program or initiative, but if done right the long-term benefits will outweigh the quick wins. If only Save the Children Australia had remembered this.
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