The Truth About Poverty Porn

homeless man 7

child fetching the waterWe’ve all seen the heart wrenching ads asking you to donate money to save the children of Africa or to help the homeless. The photos and videos emphasize the suffering of needy people in order to elicit an emotional response with the hopes of obtaining a financial donation. This is poverty porn.

Creators and distributors of poverty porn have good intentions. Their goal is to make the world a better place and believe the ends justify the means: showing these desperate pictures will raise enough money to improve the pictured people’s life situation. This is a utilitarian approach as they only have the end goal in mind. Unfortunately, poverty porn does more harm than good. Below are several common misconceptions associated with poverty porn and suggested solutions to promote social change.

Fiction: Social issues are one dimensional

Poverty porn simplifies complex problems into a one dimensional problem. It plays on the need to “see” suffering, poverty, and helplessness. Poverty does not look one particular way.

Fact: Social issues often have many layers

Dambisa Moyo interview on ABCThe ultimate goal should be sustainable change. Dr. Dambisa Moyo is an international economist who analyzes global affairs. She has her own YouTube channel with videos and interviews arguing against simply giving away money. In a 2009 interview on ABC, she shared in 1970 10% Africans were living in poverty. In 2009 there were 70-85% living in poverty when aide campaigns were big. As a solution to the increased poverty, she suggests alternatives for more sustainable economic change, such as financial independence and economic development.

Organizations should consider sharing success stories as a way to teach their friends and followers about the complexities of the issue and sustainable solutions. The video below is a good example: a woman used microloans to start her own business in Uruguay and gain financial independence.

 

Fiction: People in poverty porn are victims and you are their savior

It is easy to ‘sell’ images that confirm perceptions the public already has about an issue. In a study published in the Sociological Research Onlineuniversity students were surveyed to understand how people envision the homeless. When asked what homelessness looks like, 60% of student indicated an old man with a beard and tattered clothing. The truth is about 44% of the homeless population is male and 36% are families.

Poverty porn objectifies the “victims” by stripping them of their dignity and autonomy while treating donors as almighty saviors. Individuals photographed in their states of “poverty” are not empowered to improve their life situation. They may not even be aware of the image of extreme suffering they are showcasing to the rest of the world.

Fact: Activism is more effective than charity

In 5 Reasons poverty porn empowers the wrong person, Emily Roenigk writes, “Poverty porn leads to charity, not activism.” Social organizations must break stereotypes the public has about how a problem ‘looks.’ People are more likely to share success stories or funny videos than depressing ones. Organizations can use this knowledge to disseminate their messages to reach larger audiences willing to take action.

Fiction: It’s all about the green

Poverty porn is extremely successful at raising a lot of money that may provide short term help but not suitable for creating sustainable change. We need to think more broadly about root causes of issues such as homelessness. Money is not the only answer.

Fact: Educating friends and followers leads to sustainable change

Claire Bennett, a writer for The Guardian, nicely distills the message. “In the short term, handouts are necessary…In the long term, rebuild sustainably.” Although poverty porn is used to raise a lot of money, financial donations are a short term fix. Heather Mansfield, author of Social Media for Social Good, recommends including photos and videos in social media communications to inspire action by readers. Organizations that share poverty porn are using social media well in terms of employing visual engagement to encourage friends and followers to take action. Nonprofits can continue in areas where they already excel (identifying their goals and target audience and measuring reader response and impact using tracking tools) while modifying their approach to inspire action to promote sustainable social change.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “The Truth About Poverty Porn

  1. Jill, this is great. You’ve distilled the key messages into a very readable and succinct post. You also manage to tell a lot of us where we’ve been going wrong without sounding preachy. Great use of videos, too. I really enjoyed “Let’s save Africa! Gone wrong”. I wonder if you’ve seen Radi-Aid, by the same outfit. Very amusing and with an equally biting message – http://www.africafornorway.no

  2. Hi Jillian, I really like your post. Your images and videos perfectly compliment your content. I, too, can’t figure out how to make the embedded video smaller, but it really read just fine as is. Like Sandra, I really loved the “Let’s save Africa!” video – sometimes humor is really the best way to shine a light on complex problems. I like the way you tackle the problem without shaming those who have perpetuated the issue. Have you noticed, also, that when it comes to poverty porn – and really all discussions of the world – all the distinct and unique countries of the continent of Africa are lumped into one term – “Africa” – in a way that is never done for other continents. It is really disturbing to me and another sign of how Westerners “don’t get it.” Great job!

    • As I was doing research for this post I did notice how people often group all of the countries in Africa together. Thanks for bringing that up. The link Sandra shared above contains a video (Who wants to be a volunteer?) poking fun at that exact issue.

      • Maybe the reason that they lump all of Africa together is because some people honestly don’t know that Africa is a continent and not a country. I personally know an adult (who I will not shame here) who was not clear on Africa being made of many countries until we had friends living there. And not someone fresh out of school, either, but an older person. I felt really bad having to explain that one.

  3. You make really good points about how de-humanizing poverty porn can be. What really gets me is that the exact same techniques are used for “save the animals” videos, like the excruciating Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial. The animals obviously can’t save themselves, but the striking similarity between those advertisements and the “save the children” makes me feel like the people are being brought down to the same level as the cats and dogs. A newspaper I used to read did a similar thing, on Wednesdays they featured a child who needed a home (usually for adoption) and on Saturdays the paper had a dog or cat (or bird) available at a local shelter. At least they weren’t on the same day.

    On a lighter note, I saw a video last night that pokes fun at celebrity PSAs, and how similar they all are, regardless of the cause they are promoting. (http://www.clickhole.com/video/someone-edited-together-ultimate-psa-and-its-incre-1811) I didn’t realize it was a joke while I was watching it and kept asking “So? What are we caring about? Tell me!”

    (Sorry I can’t get the link to be active. It isn’t an option in the comments box.)

  4. Hi Jillian – Thank you for this well-researched and thoughtful post. I really like the fact vs. fiction comparisons, and the very funny video. Often times, difficult or controversial topics can be addressed more effectively with humor. Thank you for reminding us of that approach! You did a great job integrating learning from course resources as well as your own research, which makes this post all the more informative!

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s