Poverty porn may be empowering, but for who?

*This post features images that may be confronting or triggering for some viewers.

How many images of emaciated African children, most probably in aid advertisements and accompanied by a celeb, have you viewed? How many of your Facebook friends have ‘found themselves’ on a volunteer trip to Africa, letting you know by updating their profile pic to them cuddling five orphaned toddlers? And how many people have told you they just can’t look at those pictures, because it makes them soooooooo sad. My guess is one billion.

angelina-jolie-pp

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These are symptoms of a phenomenon termed ‘poverty porn’. According to Matt Collin (2009), poverty porn is any type of media that is exploitative of people in poverty for the purpose of selling newspapers, increasing donations or encouraging support for a cause. Such images capitalise on hardship, and overwhelmingly represent African people.

Perhaps if such media were a catalyst for local empowerment they could be forgiven – but to their detriment, they are not. This is a criticism Roenigk (2014) unpacks, outlining five specific reasons poverty porn actually appeals to the wrong people, which I will discuss below.

1. It misrepresents poverty
This is one of the most detrimental outcomes of poverty porn. Roenigk (2014) explains that poverty is represented as merely resulting from a lack of material resources, an issue with a specific face or story that can be easily fixed.

Take, for example, National Geographic’s #EndPoverty Hashtag challenge.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 5.03.56 pm.png
Images are shared from all over the world, but a lot come from Africa – the world centre of poverty porn.

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Although intentions were good, the challenge failed to address diversity within the poverty/wealth spectrum, instead promoting an idea of poverty that is self created and one dimensional (Nelson 2015).

2. It leads to charity, not activism
As Roenigk (2014) explains, poverty porn does not encourage activism, but rather charity. This is the easier route – you see the advertisement, make the phone call, and the good deed is done (Dortonne 2015). This fails to bring about necessary structural changes, instead upholding a shallow understanding of poverty.

shallow-understanding-from-people-of-good-will-more-frustrating-than-absolute-misunderstanding

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This is more problematic than it seems – donations have actually exacerbated some very insidious issues across Africa. According to Moyo (as quoted in Carr 2013), misdirected donations enable corruption within some regional governments, where leaders have “acted with impunity misappropriating money” (Carr 2013) – in turn increasing dependency in situations where governments are not accountable to their people.

As such, poverty porn and charity do not only undermine the autonomy of African people, but have the potential to actually make their situation worse.

3. It misrepresents the poor
Similar in nature to point one, poverty porn does not portray poverty or the poor as they truly are. Poverty porn consistently showcases images of African people in rags, in the dirt, looking utterly helpless (Roenigk 2014). As Fyfe (2015) points out, African people are depicted with bloated bellies against a backdrop of warfare – the archetype most Westerners recognise as the poor African ‘Other’.

In response to such oversimplification of identity (and as such the roots of poverty), Africans took to social media using the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou (Fyfe 2015). This showcased a contrasting and diverse Africa – one not defined by poverty and desperation.

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Well I’ll be damned, it seems African people cannot be reduced into one all-encompassing stereotype. Who would have known?!

4. Deceives the helper and the helped
Poverty porn fundamentally tells donors that due to their societal position, they have the ability to be a saviour for vulnerable communities, and says to those in poverty they are powerless (Roenigk 2014). This is dangerously paternalistic, and according to Roenigk (2014), fails to elucidate to Western audiences the mutual need for transformation. Rather, those in poverty are stripped of their human life, agency and potential (Roenigk 2014) while those donating to charity are revered.

This is the point where the White Saviour Complex comes in to play – recall my question about Facebook friends and their profile pictures.

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This term was first coined by Teju Cole in 2012 and points to the “nexus of power lurking behind supposed Western do-gooding” (Schneider 2015, p. 9). According to Cole (as quoted in Pailey 2014), ‘white saviours’ believe they are crucial to the very existence of those receiving charity – this idea solidified by exposure to poverty porn.

Most importantly, though, is the fact that this complex is not about justice for those who need it – but rather about a cathartic experience that validates privilege (Carr 2013) for the white saviour. This extent of this is often displayed in fundraising campaigns that entirely miss the mark:

Last, but not least…

5. It works
Despite the rampant exploitation, misrepresentation of circumstances and promotion of the White Saviour Complex – poverty porn works. People are sadly more likely to make a financial donation if they see a child suffering, rather than happy or healthy (Roenigk 2014). It is this that feeds into ‘the ends justifies the means‘ narrative, legitimising and giving authority to poverty porn. However, this completely ignores the 4 points discussed above and only justifies an inherently paternalistic practice.

1_Africans-tweeting-beautiful-images-750x400Source.

Poverty porn is so endemic and widespread it is practically inescapable, embraced by a majority of NGOs and fundraising campaigns (especially those focusing on Africa). It has deep roots in the White Saviour Complex and focuses on empowering those giving charity, rather than supporting structural and long lasting change. Thus the ends do not justify the means – and we should all go home and remove our embarrassing profile pictures.

References
Carr, C 2013, The Banality of Pity: Aid, Africa and the White Saviour Complex, Afritorial, viewed 26 March 2016, <http://afritorial.com/the-banality-of-pity/&gt;

Collin, M 2009, What is ‘poverty porn’ and why does it matter for development?, Aid Thoughts, viewed 26 March 2016, <http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69&gt;

Dortonne, N 2015, The dangers of poverty porn, CNN, viewed 25 March 2016, <http://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/24/living/poverty-porn-danger-feat/&gt;

Fyfe, T 2015, Africans are fighting media poverty-porn by tweeting beautiful images of their real lives, Plaid Zebra, viewed 26 March 2016, http://www.theplaidzebra.com/africans-are-fighting-media-poverty-porn-by-tweeting-beautiful-images-of-their-real-lives/>

Nelson, K 2015, Op-ed: Is NatGeo’s new #EndPoverty contest just more poverty porn?, Humanosphere, viewed 25 March 2016, <http://www.humanosphere.org/basics/2015/07/op-ed-is-natgeos-new-endpoverty-contest-just-more-poverty-porn/&gt;

Pailey, R 2014, Nigeria, Ebola and the myth of white saviours, Al Jazeera, viewed 25 March 2016, <http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/11/nigeria-ebola-myth-white-saviours-201411654947478.html&gt;

Roenigk, E 2014, 5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person, One, viewed 25 March 2016, <http://www.one.org/us/2014/04/09/5-reasons-poverty-porn-empowers-the-wrong-person/&gt;

Schneider, J 2015, ‘Inside the White Saviour Industrial Complex’, New African, vol. 49, no. 546, pp. 8-9

 

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