2012-01-05

Co.Exist

The Rise And Fall Of Poverty Porn

It used to be that the best way to raise money for the developing world was to show the abject poverty that could be found there, but NGOs are finding that tactic no longer works. Instead, it’s time to focus on solutions.

The dramatic pseudo-orchestral music of '80s action-movie schlock begins. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears on the screen, and for the next three minutes gets progressively more bloodied, beaten, and battered as he fights to rescue his on-screen daughter. This isn’t a trailer for the movie Commando. It’s a narration by Alex, a precocious 9-year-old Tanzanian boy who is--as 9-year-old boys tend to be with violent movies--obsessed. The three-minute YouTube video cuts back and forth between Alex and clips from the movie, as he narrates every key plot twist, complete with action moments and sound effects. The irreverent joy of a child’s imagination is inescapable.

  And that’s the point. The video was produced by Mama Hope, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps support community-led projects across Africa, as part of their "Stop the Pity. Unlock the Potential" campaign. The point of the video was to show Alex not as a depraved victim but as a clever, creative little kid you might find anywhere--but one who still needs support. The video went viral; it has been seen by more than 500,000 people.   Alex’s YouTube clip is a case study in a dramatic shift in the way nonprofits represent themselves and their constituencies in an era of social media and information overload. From the ashes of poverty porn, a new era of media--one which shows the poor as fundamentally full of potential and opportunity--is being born.

The modern era of the humanitarian crisis was born on American televisions in 1968. For two years, a vicious civil war raged in Nigeria after the Southeastern part of the country, Biafra, seceded. The Biafran leadership accused the Nigerian government of perpetrating genocide to inspire Western intervention, but the plea fell on deaf ears and the Nigerian military slowly whittled away at the Biafran forces, eventually employing a siege strategy.

Within a few months, mass starvation began. Pictures and television clips of African children with distended bellies started to flood into American homes. This was the first time the average American had seen these sort of images. It was the unofficial birth of media humanitarianism.
 
After 18 months of not paying attention, the American citizen response was massive, with churches, nonprofits, and community groups organizing food drives, public demonstrations, and even private airlifts to get supplies into the country. Some of the world’s best known humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, were founded to address the starvation in Biafra.
 
The effect was that an army that couldn’t hope to win in the long run received not only humanitarian supplies, but also smuggled arms and moral authority that it used to sustain the conflict for almost two more years, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of additional innocents. It was the moment that--more than any other--forged the beginning of the international humanitarian community’s reliance on images of starvation and poverty to sell their charitable products.


 
In the subsequent three decades, humanitarian organizations became more and more adept at leveraging images of poverty, disease, and famine to access charitable donations. Late-night television became the home of urgent pleas for assistance, and celebrities-cum-activists like Walter Coppage and Sally Struthers became as well-known to a young generation for posing with fly-covered children as for the TV and movie roles that made them famous in the first place.

Whatever short-term resources have been won by relief groups in leveraging our human instincts toward guilt and compassion, however, have been Pyrrhic victories. As images of violence and pain have become more commonplace, they have not only lost their power to inspire, but actually created an unwinnable race to the bottom in which the worst horror and depravity "wins." In this endless cycle, organizations genuinely trying to do great work face the "compassion fatigue" and cynicism of average people who have come to believe that the world is as it is and will be forever.

But in the last decade, there has been a fundamental shift in the way NGOs tell their stories. More and more, nonprofits are replacing misery with opportunity, making a bet on inspiring a sense of human connection rather than tapping into reserves of white or wealthy guilt. Part of this is strategic; it supposes that after decades of being battered over the head by relief organizations flaunting horror images, there’s not much left but table scraps in the guilt bucket.
 
 

 
Even more so, however, it reflects a changing generational sensibility. Gen Y has grown up in a world more interconnected than ever before. They consume and create media on the same platforms as their global peers, and they have had more opportunity to travel abroad--both as tourists and volunteers --than any cohort before them.
 
This experience has left an indelible mark. A new guard of global nonprofits, from charity:water to Invisible Children to Falling Whistles to Pencils of Promise, all started from distinct experiences in which the founders came into personal contact with the issues they would later address. They didn’t experience these problems as an academic exercise or a set of statistics. In fact, most of these organizations were unintentionally founded--coming out of sitting with, listening to, learning from, and becoming friends with communities without intent to "fix" anything.
 
In 2006, Mama Hope founder Nyla Rodgers visited Kenya. She had lost her mother suddenly to cancer that year, and went to meet Bernard, a young man whose education her mother had been sponsoring. When she arrived, she discovered that her mother had for years also been supporting an organization helping people who were suffering from or impacted by HIV/AIDS. Before passing, her mother sent a note to Anastasia--the woman who ran the organization--telling her that she was suffering from cancer, but that her daughter would be visiting. When Nyla arrived, literally hundreds of people were there waiting for her, and began singing "Amazing Grace." As she put it "Grief is just love. I was struggling with what do you do with that leftover love. It just became clear to me that I wanted to give that leftover love to these people."

  When organizations come out of an experience of empowerment and opportunity, it can’t help but influence the nature of their work. Mama Hope has never been a relief delivery organization; instead, it works to find the resources that its partner community organizations need to undertake specific projects they’ve prioritized for themselves. And of course, this type of founding experience influences the way the organization tells its story.   Mama Hope’s second video in its "Stop The Pity" series is a singalong to Paul Simon’s "You Can Call Me Al" (above), which is itself a testament to cross-cultural collaboration. The screen is split in half, and each of the lines is sung by two people--one from the U.S., one from East Africa. Each pair of singers shares gender, age, and even style--amplifying the campaign’s point that the things that make us different are ultimately much smaller than those that make us the same.

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26 Comments

  • Spidey-Sensible

    Those are a couple of great pieces.  Some very good thoughts here.  Dignity and service is always better than pity and handouts.

    (and the views expressed by writingprincess do not necessarily reflect those of other Christians, NGO workers, or people who like Paul Simon)

  • writingprincess

    And REALLY you're going to say  "You Can Call Me Al" isn't poverty porn? Really, that's like the epitome of Africa exploitation albums...I believe it's still burned in effigy in like 40 countries..including my living room! If there is a better example of neo-colonist exploitation I couldn't find one. Simon used privileged musicians who never suffered under apartheid (they were conservative blacks who prospered under the brutal South African system) to be the backdrop to his foreground and sell his so-called "collaboration," album. This was no collaboration. This was exploitation, pure and simple. And what does Mr. Simon do when he breaks the ban and records in Johannesburg? He produces a bland, pop album that was non-political and didn't do anything but help people to forget there was a real problem at hand. Oh but the musicians got paid and that make sit O.K. And well, it's a happy upbeat album with great Africa beats...
      At least they could have used Tune Yards, I mean she grew up in Africa at least...Why don't you posit Slumdog Millionaire while you're at it I mean, same thing right? 

  • Writingprincess

    And REALLY you're going to say  "You Can Call Me Al" isn't poverty porn? Really, that's like the epitome of Africa exploitation albums...I believe it's still burned in effigy in like 40 countries..including my living room! If there is a better example of neo-colonist exploitation I couldn't find one. Simon used privileged musicians who never suffered under apartheid (they were conservative blacks who prospered under the brutal South African system) to be the backdrop to his foreground and sell his so-called "collaboration," album. This was no collaboration. This was exploitation, pure and simple. And what does Mr. Simon do when he breaks the ban and records in Johannesburg? He produces a bland, pop album that was non-political and didn't do anything but help people to forget there was a real problem at hand. Oh but the musicians got paid and that make sit O.K. And well, it's a happy upbeat album with great Africa beats...
      At least they could have used Tune Yards, I mean she grew up in Africa at least...Why don't you posit Slumdog Millionaire while you're at it I mean, same thing right? 

  • Writingprincess

    Oh here we go again ... another "not poverty as porn," but "poverty as solved..." article from the overlords of helping others globally. Oh wow, really, we're going to keep having this story come out decade after decade as the "new way," to do global development. Wait, stop me from laughing. I find it so funny all these neo-colonists with their grand ideas of how to solve the po' people's problems are not turning on each other and pointing fingers on how others aren't doing the right way to exploit the dignity of our global brothers and sisters for their own self-satisfying need to "serve others." Here's a thought - why don't you just stop with your extension of colonialism and leave all the "po folks," alone. I wonder how different this world would be without all this empty and useless aid given by empty and useless programming administered by people who do good not by logic but by their own selfish measuring stick. 
    I was on a medical trip this week and someone asked me what is Bad Aid...and I gave some lame answer about good intentions not being enough but the truth is Bad Aid is all Aid that isn't founded on the principles of Jesus Christ because everything else is just humanistic BS that leads to self-destruction. Bad Aid starts from the premise that I as a human can fix this unfixable problem because a human started the unfixable problem. Ehhh! WRONG! Poverty isn't a money problem. If it were we'd have fix it by now. Poverty is a spiritual poverty, a disease that permeates every fiber of a person's being telling him or her you don't matter, you're nothing and there is no hope for you. (And oh, rich people can have the poverty disease, that's where the poverty porn comes from, they don't see the dignity of Jesus Christ in the people they're trying to save so they exploit them in their pursuit of money...) That defeatist spirit of poverty, unless extracted, will continue to hover over that person's family for generations as well as that person's aid institution. Money can't fix poverty. In fact, a $1 trillion in aid to Africa tells us quite plainly that money can't fix poverty. Only a change in mind set fixes a spiritual disease. While I ascribe to J.C. others use Buddha, whatever, but the idea that this world is bigger than yourself seems to snap people out of the poverty funk and into the land of the living. (In 8 years of working with true global development organizations - ones I'm sure never make it to the classrooms of Northwestern, not enough sex I guess, I've seen how little money and lots of love can defeat poverty....) 
    If global development gurus really wanted to solve the world's problems wouldn't they be working in their back yards instead of half way around the world? Look around, folks living in Englewood have the poverty rate of some Nigeria folks per capita. 
    But that really doesn't matter because the glory and (MONEY) lies in global development and as a long as Nathaniel and his cohorts treat poverty like some backwards Monopoly game moving the people they "help" like pawns toward Park Avenue they will get increasingly frustrated with their lack of progress. 

  • smithmillcreek

    I wish that NGOs would not just be obsessed with small scale misery, but would would also be open to being optimistic about large successes in these realms. Can we talk, not just about building one water well, but about eliminating hunger through the Millennium Development Goals ?

  • Tms

    I think each country and each sector of each country and each NGO that is trying to assist has different challenges and different needs. My experience in helping set up an NGO in Cambodia will be significantly different than another's experience working in Africa. The problems may seem similar, but the cultural differences, the histories of the inhabitants, and the unique challenges (governmental, environmental, infrastructural, etc.) will arch in significantly different directions. Although this is an obvious observation, the point I'm trying to make is that it's clear that the mediums for communicating out to the world are limited. And the successful campaigns that are launched consequently follow the paths of "what is effective". 
    I've talked with a number of NGO directors - people who have started their efforts to solve specific problems on the ground and in the field in response to significant problems. They are usually individuals who have been "activated" by the lack of response to these problems by local or official bureaucracies.  Most of these small organizations (1-3-5 individuals) don't know how to raise awareness. Most have no experience raising capital to fund their efforts.  They are accomplishing what they can - assisting people one-on-one - out of their sense of morality. They are engaged, but they are exhausting their personal resources.  So they reach out.  And some other friend or colleague tries to help, provides a bit of money, and maybe expertise to build them a web page. Maybe a fund raiser is scheduled.  If it's successful, they go on with their work. If not, ...
    Meanwhile, much larger organizations of NGOs or agencies of governments are trying to respond as well.  They have already built an infrastructure to fund their projects, and are sending field workers out to address those problems that some other field person has identified.  Most often there is some level of competition in the field between these larger, well-funded NGOs and the small ones. There is little or no collaboration, services overlap creating more competition, etc. 
    That is the experience that I've seen in Cambodia.  Meanwhile the people who need and/or requested services are caught in the middle.  They don't trust their own government, and rely upon the NGOs. But the big ones have too many rules, and the small ones don't have enough resources (and some small ones are as corrupt as the local government officials). 
    From the public's perspective - the donor community - they merely want to help and to make certain that their donations are reaching the problems and providing solutions.  They don't trust the largest NGOs because they know how bureaucratic they have become. They don't trust the smaller NGOs because they have no transparency.  So the competition for donor resources becomes what you are terming "marketing": Who is doing the best marketing.  Do they need to know what's going on in the field? Do they need to believe that their funds are being used properly.
    NPR reported that the most effective fund-raising tool of the Haiti relief was cell-phone texting. Why? Because each of the donations was an "impulse donation."  $40 M of impulse in the first two weeks (I believe) of the news cycle.
    Was that Poverty Porn? Maybe... Or was it a response by donors because they "heard" and "saw" a catastrophe?
    And yet smaller catastrophes are happening all the time in a thousand places.  And that's the issue, in my mind. How do you communicate need -- based upon situation -- through a two-dimensional medium like web and TV?

  • Tms

    I think each country and each sector of each country and each NGO that is trying to assist has different challenges and different needs. My experience in helping set up an NGO in Cambodia will be significantly different than another's experience working in Africa. The problems may seem similar, but the cultural differences, the histories of the inhabitants, and the unique challenges (governmental, environmental, infrastructural, etc.) will arch in significantly different directions. Although this is an obvious observation, the point I'm trying to make is that it's clear that the mediums for communicating out to the world are limited. And the successful campaigns that are launched consequently follow the paths of "what is effective". 
    I've talked with a number of NGO directors - people who have started their efforts to solve specific problems on the ground and in the field in response to significant problems. They are usually individuals who have been "activated" by the lack of response to these problems by local or official bureaucracies.  Most of these small organizations (1-3-5 individuals) don't know how to raise awareness. Most have no experience raising capital to fund their efforts.  They are accomplishing what they can - assisting people one-on-one - out of their sense of morality. They are engaged, but they are exhausting their personal resources.  So they reach out.  And some other friend or colleague tries to help, provides a bit of money, and maybe expertise to build them a web page. Maybe a fund raiser is scheduled.  If it's successful, they go on with their work. If not, ...
    Meanwhile, much larger organizations of NGOs or agencies of governments are trying to respond as well.  They have already built an infrastructure to fund their projects, and are sending field workers out to address those problems that some other field person has identified.  Most often there is some level of competition in the field between these larger, well-funded NGOs and the small ones. There is little or no collaboration, services overlap creating more competition, etc. 
    That is the experience that I've seen in Cambodia.  Meanwhile the people who need and/or requested services are caught in the middle.  They don't trust their own government, and rely upon the NGOs. But the big ones have too many rules, and the small ones don't have enough resources (and some small ones are as corrupt as the local government officials). 
    From the public's perspective - the donor community - they merely want to help and to make certain that their donations are reaching the problems and providing solutions.  They don't trust the largest NGOs because they know how bureaucratic they have become. They don't trust the smaller NGOs because they have no transparency.  So the competition for donor resources becomes what you are terming "marketing": Who is doing the best marketing.  Do they need to know what's going on in the field? Do they need to believe that their funds are being used properly.
    NPR reported that the most effective fund-raising tool of the Haiti relief was cell-phone texting. Why? Because each of the donations was an "impulse donation."  $40 M of impulse in the first two weeks (I believe) of the news cycle.
    Was that Poverty Porn? Maybe... Or was it a response by donors because they "heard" and "saw" a catastrophe?
    And yet smaller catastrophes are happening all the time in a thousand places.  And that's the issue, in my mind. How do you communicate need -- based upon situation -- through a two-dimensional medium like web and TV?

  • Weh Yeoh

    It's worth noting that although a lot of these moves have been voluntary, or pragmatic on the behalf of NGOs, in some cases it has been written into a code of conduct. In Australia, ACFID (Australian Council for International Development) - essentially a peak council for NGOs, sets out fairly strict guidelines about the type of images and footage that can and can't be used in NGO marketing. This is in stark contrast to NGOs in the States where they are freer to use whatever images work.

    Given the disconnect between the aims of marketing (aiming to get more funds) and programs (aiming to empower, avoid the trappings of outdated development which often features in marketing) this is an important distinction to make.

    More on this topic on whydev: http://www.whydev.org/the-prob...

  • Tms

    Perhaps you're right. Maybe showing photos of people in misery no longer rakes in the dough. Guilt doesn't work anymore? "Strike the set! Bring in the dancing girls and boys!" or how about NGO terrorism: "Send me $100 to make this picture disappear!"

    There's something fishy about the idea that misery doesn't sell. Sounds too much like a marketing campaign, similar to "Let's clean up our image."  After the gilded age of the 1990s and early 2000s, after the stock market collapse and the housing foreclosure recession is the problem that people don't want to help? That they're "offended" by photos of reality on the ground?  Or is it that each photo is reminding them that their pockets too are a bit empty?

    When we have money, currency always seems like "the Solution."  And I agree that it's often not. But the real challenge is not to rake in more money, but to find mechanisms that enable those who are concerned to be able to pitch in and help. 

    NGOs may or may not be the best vehicles for delivering those mechanisms.  If they can communicate precisely "how" they are assisting - and the key word is "assisting" - with well-defined and evaluated projects, then identifying the "currency" - the means of donating assistance - should be high on their list. This includes opportunities, connections, access to assisting resources, expertise, etc. 

    I've discovered that most dedicated aid workers would be doing what they are doing regardless of the funding.  They become involved in the problems, become dedicated to the people, and are seeking much more than a hundred dollar or five hundred dollar donation through the Internet or through grants.  It's when that dedication becomes a complete drain on their resources that they reach out for help - just as the people are seeking help to whom they've dedicated their efforts.  It's like the guy who dives into the ocean to save a drowning: They do it, but then they find they don't have the strength to get back to the ship.  While I, as a fellow shipmate, try to throw them a line, eventually - if too many have done the same thing - I'm just plain out of rope.

    As a caring society - or as some would say "a ship of fools"  -- wouldn't it be better to have an analogous rescue dingy?  An organizational mechanism that is designed to help? 

    NGOs should not be so isolated in their response. The smallest are great for spotting the problems, but lousy at delivering the solution.  The largest are great for delivering massive assistance, but too unwieldy to respond to every small calamity.  What's needed, IMHO, is a modular strategy wherein NGOs can collaborate quickly to respond to a variety of problems - combine forces - and then return to a state of readiness.

    But that's not the purpose of your post.  By removing the so-called Poverty Porn that once attracted donors we are removing the only sensors that many of our donors have about the problems that exist.  The medium is the problem, not the message. We need a better means of communicating, but mostly we need a better means of collaborating.   

    Thanks for the posting.

  • Cisco CSR

    Your perspective really resonates with our mission in corporate social responsibility and the way we believe we can best support our nonprofits with marketing.

    I'm also loving the comments almost as much as this piece itself!

    @CharlieAtCisco:twitter

  • How Matters

    What do you do when your personal experience of living and working with people in Africa is so different than what is portrayed in the western media or by many charitable organizations? Confronted with this, Duncan McNicholl, an Engineers Without Borders Canada worker living in Malawi, decided in early 2010 to begin exploring these perceptions of poverty. He took pictures of friends and neighbors in his community as both poor and rich, and then posted them on his blog, Water Wellness. He writes about his work at: http://www.how-matters.org/201...

  • Emmanuel Candia

    Nathaniel, This is truly insightful and inspiring! It is important we leap out of that misery pit into the mountain of joy and hope of life. Sure the media has been a den of hopelessness and distress with all bad news. More people need to read this!

  • Joe Turner

    - I think the question you are debating with Anonymous is really a moral/ethical one.  Many people regard images of dying children as being a disgusting invasion of individual privacy.  But some argue that images of a smiling child may not be so much different. 

    In both cases, the needs of the individual child are taken to be of lower importance than the potential effect they will have on donors and therefore donations.  They have not asked to be in publicity materials, they have not (as far as I can see) given any kind of permission.  In some of the cases I have seen of videos of organisations you've linked to approvingly above, promises are made to tiny children regarding schooling that we have absolutely no way of verifying.  They look cute, that is the only reason they are being filmed.

    It strikes me that the danger of nearly all of the organisations you seem to love are that they occupy a very similar space - they were started by gormless teenagers who decided to go to various warzones as a kind of initiation process and in the process set up the most feeble, undiscussed, unorthodox and irresponsible project.  Some time later, you claim that they are somehow better, but there is plenty of evidence that they're just banging the same old drum. 

    And the real tragedy is that people like you get taken in by this stuff because of your own infernal moral discomfort.  As if doing anything, however idiotic, is better than doing nothing, because at least when you are doing something you can tell yourself that you are not sitting back and letting it happen.  And then you just repackage it and sell it to other idiots who are like you.

    How about this for a crazy idea - people in trouble are not playthings which you can use to further your individual moral or personal progression project.  I don't care how many congressional medals you got or whether Bono visited your office.  None of these things add up to a plate of beans.

  • Nina G.

    "How about this for a crazy idea - people in trouble are not playthings
    which you can use to further your individual moral or personal
    progression project."

    This is true.  My first response in reading this article was: are we supposed to consider this "shift" as progress? These new NGO marketing strategies seem like the same coin just the other side.

  • dimah abdulkarim

    Thank you for writing this piece, Nathaniel!  It's high time we became a more solution oriented generation when it comes to global issues including, but not limited to, poverty.  As a young American and one who has recently moved to a considerably volatile north African country, I can attest to notions of uplifting a people and provoking potential--rather than throwing money in the direction of pity to band-aid the guilt those in the developed world may feel.

  • Kristin Coombes

    You touch on some important issues that International NGO as well as small domestic non-profits struggle with everyday.  There is a fine line between sharing the great work being done and exploiting people who are suffering.  I hope nonprofit leaders and board members continue to struggle with the tone of their fund development campaigns.

  • Hebah Fisher

    Nathaniel, this is a fantastic, insightful article. A crucial read -- sharing it with everyone.

  • Thaler Pekar

    Yes! We must move beyond sympathy to empathy. Sympathy may produce short-run responses, but it is unsustainable. Organizations, donors, and grantees should be encouraged to share authentic stories of motivation, experience, and engagement.