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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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