Why we should all care about the issue of Poverty Porn

When it comes to charity advertisement we are all too used to the image of the small African child’s big eyes looking up to plead for help. When raising money for a cause, the effectiveness of certain images appears to always come first for charities’ advertisements. This results in a depiction that is stereotypical and racist. Images meant to tug at our heartstrings or shock us exploit their subjects to a degree where they are completely stripped of their dignity. Jorgen Lissner was the first to criticise these practices as poverty porn in 1981, however the issue has persisted. 

Poverty porn is defined as “any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor’s condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause”  and it can be seen in many forms of representations of the Global South. It is harmful because while it may be representative of one reality in the Global South, it omits the many other realities of it. Poverty Porn exists because its curators pick and chose the reality to present that is most beneficial for the purpose of their narrative. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi said on the issue of stereotypes: “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” So often instances of poverty porn portray a story of  the Global South as inferior and passive and play into colonial stereotypes by presenting the Western viewer as the only remedy to help these ‘lost’ individuals. 

This implication should be especially concerning for charities that use poverty porn to motivate donors in their advertisements. While it is harmful in any instance, it is particularly puzzling that charities, whose aim is to ‘do good’ utilise these kinds of stereotypical narratives. However most often charities become too entrenched in their quest for donations that they either forget or do not care about the issues of representation of their advertisements. The Norwegian Students’ & Academics’ International Assistance Fund (SAIH) created an annual campaign called Radi-Aid in the wake of the prevalence of poverty porn by charities. Each year the Rusty Radiator Award is given out to the worst development video of the year, and the content by the nominees is shocking. Radi-Aid has significantly helped to raise awareness about the issue of poverty porn especially by charities, however exploitative and stereotypical depictions of the Global South in the media and advertisement persevere.

It is therefore also important for the viewer to be aware and conscious of the media and narratives he*she consumes and how he*she interprets these harmful depictions. Positive examples of charities’ advertisements do exist, Warchild’s advertisement, that draws on commonality between the viewer and the subject and focuses on the agency of its subjects is a good example. Yet, there are not enough of these good examples, and charities shall be conscious of the issue of representation when constructing their narratives for raising donations. 

Further Reading: 

War Child Advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIKewZLeWU8

Radi -Aid: https://www.radiaid.com

SAIH Norway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbqA6o8_WC0&feature=youtu.be

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2018/jan/12/charities-stop-poverty-porn-fundraising-ed-sheeran-comic-relief

The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/dec/05/ed-sheeran-poverty-porn-activism-aid-yemen-liberia

New International: https://newint.org/features/1981/06/01/merchants-of-misery 

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