When writing about Africa we are told:

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering.

Does any of this seem familiar?

This extract is, of course, controversial. It is also happens to be a parody written by Binyavanga Wainaina for a 2005 issue of Granta called How to Write About Africa [cross-posted in full] as a protest against the bland, mono stereotyping of images and stories consistently levied about Africans, some of it now labelled as ‘poverty porn’.

Over at the Aid Thoughts blog we find a working definition of ‘poverty porn’:

Poverty porn, also known as development porn or even famine porn, is 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 … is typically associated with black, poverty-stricken Africans, but can be found elsewhere. The subjects are overwhelming children, with the material usually characterized by images or descriptions of suffering, malnourished or otherwise helpless persons.

Behind these images of poor Africa is a resilient media industry of column inches and photostories determined to churn out stories for domestic audiences usually with a poorly contextualised focus on the suffering of others. Such approaches, we are often told are on the wane. For example, The Economist reports that popular Live Aid styled events no longer work like they used to:

Those days of poverty porn at rock concerts (slo-mo famine on giant screens to accompany the music) have also drawn to a close.

NGOs have also become increasingly powerful agents in debating their own responsibilities with regard to ‘poverty porn’ in their own campaign and advocacy work. After watching Slumdog Millionaire in 2009 Andrea Perera from Oxfam joined the fray amassing over the film’s content set in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, India, reflecting that:

For us, the trick is to be true to what we see without undermining the inherent dignity of each person we meet. […] Poor people are just like us in many ways; they’re just trying their best to make a go of it. We hope relating the honest truth, not some stylized, overly dramatic version of it, motivates our constituents

That some NGOs have turned against the trappings of the poverty porn narrative does not mean that it has gone away as the example below highlights.

‘Poverty porn’ at The Times of Malta?

Sarah Carabott’s story made the front page of The Times of Malta on 14th May last month titled Saving the children. This was the leading photo carried with the article:

The article details the experiences of Fr Dun George Grima of Maltese charity Jesus in Thy Neighbour and the mission of the movement set up to “listen to and love the ignored” in Brazil, Ethiopia and Kenya. They rescue abandoned babies and children, sometimes disowned onto riverbanks, rubbish mounds, in juvenile homes or hospitals. They are then “adopted” by the Maltese for less than €28 a year.

Only one voice is presented in the article, one actor: that of the western priest. No child or carer is interviewed. What caused the rise of parentless children in those countries? Has this always been the case or did something occur to bring this on recently? What about prevention? Does anything need to be said about the cheap purchase of children and what happens to them beyond feeding, educating and healing? Could this story – or the accompanying image – be seen as exploiting the suffering of innocents without their consent?

It is questions like these that drove a group of 22 students from the University of Malta to write a letter to the newspaper, confronting the stereotype-laden and biased nature of the story’s presentation and what it was saying about ‘the poor’. By challenging the national newspaper, the students did not simply roll their eyes at another ‘poverty porn’ story blunder. Instead, they disputed the article’s status as pure ‘truth’ and began an important conversation about the role of the media and their responsibilities in not just what they tell, but how they tell people’s stories.

Their example is one to take note of and see where it goes – if say, a campaign evolves from it or the Times take their criticisms on board: its not every day a story gets flattened as promotional cliché ridden material dressed as reportage.

‘When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me a communist’. These were the words of Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara some three decades ago. This ongoing debate about hunger in a world of abundant plenty is, unfortunately still with us as was illustrated by the article ‘Saving the Children’ in the Times of Malta, Monday May 14th. The article attempts to remind readers of the inequity occurring around the world when children die of readily preventable causes. And it offers a simple solution, in this case individual charity donated to a Maltese charitable organisation working in Ethiopia. And, in doing so, it manages to avoid most of the important questions that need to be asked.

Once again, we are presented with images and a story designed to pull at heartstrings, one of heroic work by western aid workers saving the lives and dreams of African children in a cruel and savage country that apparently cares little or nothing for its disabled who are, we are led to believe, dumped on rubbish mounds. We are informed that Ethiopian children are introduced to bread (the ‘staff of life’) by a westerner for the first time even though it has never been part of the normal Ethiopian diet. The only projects and carers presented are westerners, surely this cannot be accurate? Unfortunately, in trying to ‘do good’ the article instead does a great dis-service to the issue of world hunger for a number of reasons, principally that it provides no context whatsoever through which to judge what is described.

• It treats the issue as a matter of individual charity and giving rather than as one of justice and injustice

• Ethiopia is presented as a strange, cruel and savage place devoid of local people who care

• We are presented with a case study of one child without knowing, in any way, if it is representative

• The successes of the Ethiopian government and of many local Ethiopian organisations with regard to children’s health and well-being are studiously ignored (Ethiopia’s infant mortality rate and its under 5 mortality rate have been very significantly reduced over the past 3 decades thanks to the work of Ethiopians)

• A very important world issue – the well-being of children – is used to promote the work of one organisation without question

• Once again, we are (wrongly) told that an Ethiopian child’s well-being can be had for €28 per month through sponsorship

• And, we are presented with discredited images of the white man as saviour, the black child as helpless victim and African society as cruel and heartless – this is hugely distorting and grossly inaccurate.

We welcome the fact that the Times and its journalist highlight this pressing issue but we request that promotional material is not presented as reportage; that context and accuracy are included and that tired old western clichés and images are set aside.

Drafted by a group of 22 Maltese and foreign students who have had the privilege of studying here at the University

Signed for the group by:

Mikaila Ellis Altenbern

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Explore more…..

  • The Irish NGO development movement, led by Dóchas (the Irish association of development NGOs), spearheaded the establishing of a code of conduct on images and messages in 2007 that commits organisations to a set of agreed principles. This ensures that they:

1.  will avoid stereotypical or sensational images
2.  will choose images and messages that represent the full complexity of the situations in which they work and;
3.  seek the permission of the people portrayed

The Dóchas code of conduct on images and messages is an essential tool for anyone looking to make decisions about what images and messages to use in their own organisation or group and is accompanied by a poster.

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