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Poverty Porn and Development Communication

At the recently concluded Rusty Radiator Award given to the fundraising videos, which uses the worst kind of stereotypes, the Compassion International’s ‘The wait is over’ was a clear winner. The jury while giving the award highlighted that the video promotes deep-rooted perceptions of Western superiority over the South. It reinforces the white savior complex, and depicts that there is nothing the parents can do for their children other than to wait for the sponsor who can save their lives and their future. Details can be found here

Poverty porn, also known as development porn, famine porn, or stereotype porn, has been 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.

While this kind of videos greatly raises sympathy and bring millions of dollars to aid agencies, questions like where do we draw the line?, does the video depict the truth or misrepresents it? Is poverty as simple as it is shown in the videos? and does the means justify the end? are often debated. It has often been an issue of strong debate for me too. As I work for a trade union, I have often had debates with my comrades and caution them to be careful while representing pictures and videos of the South. While many feel that it is good way of raising money and using it to alleviate poverty or empower the people, I personally have some different opinions.

To me, poverty porn, misrepresents truth– It has often been found that the pictures are staged and videos are carefully choreographed with the end goal of raising funds. Those videos  have a carefully selected target audience and seek to achieve an objective i.e. raise funds. Nothing more, nothing less. Seldom do they serve an educational purpose. Like a friend commented, unfortunately people react on biological emotions such as pity, anger, outrage, sympathy etc. such videos serve a good purpose.

While such videos does serve a purpose, it reduces the truth and the subjects in the video to a mere product. In fact, the pain, suffering and the situation of those in the videos, becomes a product. Thus, the goal becomes to sell the product-a product which is intended to create generosity and not true feeling of comradeship. It becomes a ‘feel good factor’ for the wealthy that they are doing something in the world.

Poverty porn culture dis-empower the poor and unnecessarily empowers the rich/wealthy people. Such videos generate in a culture, where a group of ailing people is shown and a call for help is made. Often in those videos it is highlighted that if the rich don’t stand up and help the poor, they will have nowhere else to go. Thus those donating the money/goods are left with an unnecessary sense of power and entitlement. Moreover, it highlight the others as lesser beings, who are not capable of helping themselves and always need outside help to rescue them for their aggrieved situation.

Poverty Porn creates and fortify stereotypes. The pictures and people shown in those well crafted (directed videos) are seen as representative of the entire community by those viewing it. I belong to a tribe in North east, and often NGOs and media in India have depicted us violent, angry, gun carrying people who are against anything that has to do with other parts of India. And many in India, do believe it and ask funny and racist questions to us while we are in other parts of India.

Moreover, it is unethical. Often those in the videos and pictures are not aware of how their pictures will be used. Forget written consent, even verbal consent of people are not taken while their pictures are being used by organizations. While the violations might be higher in term of pictures then videos, it clearly violates all ethics of development communication.

And very importantly it simplifies poverty and does nothing to highlight the structural problems causing poverty in the first place. The aid does cosmetic service to poverty. Often the organizations engaging in such dis-empowering  social work offer band-aid solutions to poverty because they are incapable or unwilling to question and fight against the structures that caused that impoverishment in the first place. For instance, in India, we rarely find an organization openly critiquing the caste system for years of oppression and poverty among the Dalits and tribes. Many Organizations are too shy to blame the government for the oppression of tribes in central. And thus we find most of them in offering the government help in establishing compensation or some livelihood options, rather than dealing in questions of land and forest rights.

We have to realize that those who are depicted in the aid videos are helpless creatures but are empowered people and communities who can fight on their own. Yes, they might need a little help from here and there but they definitely do not need that help which in undignified to their existence. Thus, I end with a quote by Lilla Watson, “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together’

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The views here are personal and is not an attack on any organization directly.-Author

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