(More puns to follow. You’re welcome, in advance.)
I get a real kick out of saying that my job involves talking shit all day. It’s one of those dad jokes that never gets old (for me, anyway). I’ve become impervious to the eye rolls.
No, I’m not in politics or sales. I’m just a simple public health nerd who spends her days thinking about shit, writing about shit and asking questions about how shit impacts people who don’t enjoy the luxury of modern sanitation like we do here in Australia. Some of you might be confused as to how this fits in with public health, and I wouldn’t blame you. The WASH sector hasn’t been great in promoting how much value it can add on a vast number of health issues.
One for One. You buy shoes; we’ll give a pair away in a developing country. Makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over, doesn’t it? Knowing you’re helping a barefoot child in need?
TOMS Shoes aren’t big in Australia, so I’d never bought any. But after being in Kenya for five months, I was swamped with them. 27,000 pairs, to be precise. I worked with a branch of the Kenya Red Cross, one of TOMS’ 100+ partner organisations, and I was asked to head up the distribution of free shoes. The Kenya Red Cross is primarily volunteer-run, and it took around 40 volunteers to do the distribution.
Inclusive education is often misunderstood as a way to integrate children with disabilities into “regular” classes. But in fact, it’s a broader strategy that not only covers children with disabilities, but attempts to remove barriers that prevent any child from participating meaningfully in education. Continue reading Why health is an education issue→
Not so long ago, I was wondering about the interaction between my disability and the career I’m starting in international development. I don’t feel discriminated against; on the contrary, I feel very privileged working in Bangladesh in an international position. Plus, I’m white, European and male, and I studied at some fancy universities. Continue reading There are more aid workers with disabilities than you think→
How many times have we seen this: a complex emergency with a decade or two of heavy humanitarian intervention (maybe some development organisations and peacekeeping forces as well), scores or even hundreds of millions of dollars spent by aid agencies, legions of expats trafficked through–and yet close to zero planned impact on local economic development or resilience? Sound like Eastern DRC? Haiti? South Sudan? Continue reading Making development work for humanitarian response–and vice versa→
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.”
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.
The development industry has been slow to grasp the fact that the world is at a new – and more connected – stage in history.
This age is characterised by:
The possibility of reaching most people on the planet with two-way communications;
The increased ability to understand and overcome the barriers to communications that separate human beings, like culture, language and religion;
The diminishing control of the state and, relatedly, the empowerment of non-state actors and ordinary people.
These changes are creating new challenges and opportunities, and a greater need for us to better understand the barriers to and impacts of instant communications.
The combination of computers, mobile phones, tablets, television and radio has ensured that most people on this planet now have some means of direct access to information. Few people are unreachable if they want to be reached and their government allows it.
The International Telecommunications Union estimates there are nearly as many mobile phone subscriptions in the world as there are people – seven billion – with 69 percent of the population of Africa and 89 percent in Asia and the Pacific having mobile phones. Nearly three billion people, two thirds of whom come from developing countries, are online.
What development experts have not yet fully grasped is how this can directly and immediately improve people’s lives. One of the best examples is the ongoing Ebola crisis, which the international community was excruciatingly slow to respond to. When it did, it spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting doctors and nurses, both local and international, to treat those infected, while largely ignoring how to prevent people from getting infected in the first place.
Slowly, and too late for some, creative local people started making music and spraying graffiti in a desperate attempt to spread the vital information people needed. International organisations and local governments largely only created pamphlets and posters, despite large numbers of those contracting Ebola not being able to read or write.
What was needed, as Medicins sans Frontieres (MSF) raised the alarm in March 2014, was swift creation of visual media to saturate Ebola-affected countries with information on how the virus is spread and how to avoid infection. Modern technology could have been used much more effectively as a means of prevention, long before over 20,000 people became infected with Ebola.
As Claudia Evers, MSF’s Ebola emergency coordinator in Guinea, said, “In the first nine months, if people had been given proper messages, all this could have been prevented.”
Media could have been disseminated in a variety of ways, including by mobile phones, television and radio; playing on Jumbotrons in stadiums and closed-circuit TV systems in hospitals; and via NGO personnel’s laptops, among other means. Such sustained, systematic use of repetitive messaging could have swiftly reached millions of West Africans.
In response to the lack of visual media available by August 2014, my South African colleague Brent Quinn and I created a short animated special called Ebola: A Poem For The Living. The film, in which a young Ebola patient advises his family on how to avoid becoming infected themselves and pleads with them to listen, confronts myths, superstitions and fear, stressing the importance of isolation of the person infected.
Liberia started playing the film on national television, many radio stations put it on air, and multiple churches and grassroots organisations showed it in their communities. A Nigerian foundation posted it on their Facebook page, where it swiftly drew over 354,000 views and nearly 2,700 “likes” and was shared more than 10,000 times. Interestingly, in Guinea, the most common way of distributing the video has been transferring it over Bluetooth between cell phones.
We initially only created English and French versions. But as the video spread, more and more organisations requested local-language versions. Volunteers offered to create voiceovers in new languages so their communities could receive the video’s message. Families brought their children to the recordings under very difficult circumstances during the height of the crisis, and radio stations opened their professional recording studios for free. West Africans’ extensive engagement with Ebola: A Poem for the Living suggests there was a thirst for a well-made video with a clear message on how to prevent Ebola. Yet even today, in some languages, this video is apparently the only visual media available on Ebola.
Mass communications need to become a more central component in development programming, especially in preventative medicine. It is not enough to plan for sending doctors to the next Ebola crisis after it breaks out. We need to better use modern communications to spread information about preventative measures, to ensure that fewer or no doctors are ultimately needed.
Firdaus Kharas is a Peabody Award-winning creator of media for social change and the Director of Chocolate Moose Media. You can follow him on Twitter. At this writing, 16 versions of Ebola: A Poem for the Living can be viewed and downloaded here.
Featured image is a still from Ebola: A Poem for the Living, courtesy of Chocolate Moose Media.
This is the final piece in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities. Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2!
By Rebecca Berman
My previous two posts have discussed the lack of people with disabilities working in development and reasons this should change. Now, for the final step: how can we ensure more people with disabilities are included in the aid sector? While I’m not a human resources expert, these suggestions come from my experience in the hiring process.
1. If your organisation isn’t accessible, make it so!
As Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities states, signatories “recognize the importance of international cooperation and its promotion…Such measures could include… (a) Ensuring that international cooperation, including international development programmes, is inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities.” Publications like these are currently being disseminated that discuss how international programs can increase their accessibility:
As with any changes, it doesn’t happen overnight. But the plethora of resources available show it’s possible, and will be made possible, as long as people with disabilities are part of the process of increasing accessibility.
2. Budget for accessibility.
As budgeting concerns are sometimes a barrier to employment, disability accommodations must be considered in all organisations’ budgets. Grant makers should also encourage organisations to budget for accessibility in proposals, thus increasing the chances of programming including people with disabilities.
If accessibility is considered from the beginning, the cost factor won’t be a barrier to inclusion. It costs less to build an accessible building than to renovate an existing building to increase access, and the same is true for building websites. This concept can also be applied to development programming and budgeting.
I was once told by a large international affairs organisation that they couldn’t afford an interpreter, as it wasn’t in the budget, since “no one ever asked for an interpreter before”. I think situations like this tend to be self-perpetuating. If deaf people are discouraged from attending events, no one asks for an interpreter, and people don’t consider hiring interpreters. Like in the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, hethey will come.”
3. Remove discriminatory “health criteria” for hiring staff.
From a human resources perspective, this one is easier said than done. As stigma towards disabilities run deep, many organisations have well-ingrained policies barring people with disabilities from employment, intentionally or unintentionally. As we move away from a medical model of disability and toward a social model, we shouldn’t be perpetuating “disability shaming” hiring policies.
Reconsider hiring policies that may be well-intended but come across as discriminatory, especially those that only view disability as a medical problem. This may not be obvious to people without knowledge on disability issues, and is a good way to include people with disabilities in changing policy.
I could not be medically cleared for employment with a development agency until I purchased new hearing aids, which had nothing to do with my ability to perform the job. Audism policies like this deal with the old standard of inability. Similar issues occur for people with psycho-social disabilities, people who are blind and people with other disabilities, who face pre-existing stigmas that prevent them from being active participants in the workforce. Or, they go into “hiding,” going to lengths to make sure their disability isn’t “discovered.” This sometimes happens with disabilities that are “hidden,” such as learning disabilities.
4. Practice what you preach.
You’d think this would go without saying, but you would be surprised. It’s easy to write policy statements such as “We do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability…” However, does your organisation truly embody the principles of inclusion?
Still not convinced? As Weh Yeoh wrote here on WhyDev, “There are over 1 billion people in the world who must become our priority.” I would like to add, people with disabilities must not just be a priority as recipients of aid, but also as active agents of change. Now is the time to get started. Nothing about us without us.
Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.
Featured image shows Australian volunteer Ben Clare, himself blind, training teachers and students to read in Braille in Samoa. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.