What’s wrong with this picture? Poverty Porn & Voluntourism

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The information revolution has arguably made the media industry the most powerful industry of all in terms of shaping the minds of society at large. The cost of processing and transmitting information in all forms has significantly reduced, meaning media can be produced fairly easily and reach a larger audience than ever before. When examining the relationship between the information revolution and the field of international development, one of the most pertinent issues to focus on is poverty porn. Poverty porn refers to any type of media (written, photography, film, etc.) that exploits the poor’s condition as a means of generating sympathy and most importantly donations! We’ve all seen adverts featuring a shockingly malnourished African child standing alone in a barren desert. These heart-wrenching ads usually come on when you’re eating – producing new levels of sadness and guilt within you that you never knew you could experience. The words ‘sponsor a child for £2 a month’ appear on your screen. Awakening the philanthropist within all of us, we rush to the opportunity to save these poor starving children. But unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

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Recently I came across a highly ill-informed blog post titled The Problem of ‘Poverty Porn’; assuming it would be a critique of the use of poverty porn, it was in fact a critique of those who oppose poverty porn. The author argues that poverty porn is an effective and ‘professional’ fundraising tool based on the fact that images of sad children attract a larger number of donations than images that portray happy and empowered children. According to the author, ‘people have to see what’s wrong before they want to fix it’; thus the ends justify the means. But the truth is that in the long-term, poverty porn can in fact do far more harm than good. What the author clearly disregards is the fact that when exposed to an image enough times, we as human beings can become desensitised. Consider the fact that the average person watching the news each evening is bombarded with very real images of war, violence, poverty, and famine. Aware of the vast amount of evil in the world, we feel sad for 5 minutes and soon forget.

This is exactly the issue with poverty porn; essentially, enough exposure to poverty porn leads to two possible outcomes. The first is that we become totally desensitised and begin to ask ignorant questions such as ‘I’ve been sponsoring African children for years now, why are we still seeing the same images?’. The second outcome is that, alongside the guilt, we’re overcome with sense of security and we feel instant gratitude for our own lives and blessings. Although a sense of gratefulness is not the problem – the problem is that viewers become instantly aware of the scale of inequality in the world and feel a sense of helplessness. The end result of both outcomes is an apathetic attitude towards poverty reduction. Overtime, poverty porn becomes easier to ignore and disregard, and as a result international development agencies try to create more shocking and disturbing images, such as this horrifying piece of poverty porn, courtesy of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Not only do viewers become more and more desensitised to such imagery, they also develop an unrealistic image of developing countries. In recent times, ‘poverty’ has become Africa’s second name and the two are now synonymously linked to one another. Yes, poverty is very much a reality, but Africa is also one of the most diverse and resource-rich continents – not to mention its vast amount of human capital. Yet many people regard Africa (firstly as one homogenous bloc, rather than a diverse continent), as a place of wars, continuous conflict, AIDS, famine, and nothing else.  As Chimamanda Adichie so eloquently put in her TED talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ :

“The singe story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story… The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different rather than how we are similar.

So you might ask, ‘why not go and see Africa first-hand?’. Is Africa really as bleak as the adverts make it out to be? African countries are unsurprisingly among some of the most popular destinations for voluntourism. However, there is arguably an element of poverty porn within some overseas volunteer projects; whereby voluntourists enter impoverished communities uninvited and stare in awe and shock at the poverty around them. In my previous post I briefly mentioned the potential exploitation of orphans within the voluntourism industry – one of the biggest mistakes a voluntourist can make is to pay an organisation money in order to visit an orphanage. Orphans have been known to perform dance routines for foreign volunteers in an attempt to stir up their emotions. Not only is having children entertain volunteers, day in and day out, a form of exploitation but it also aids volunteers misguided poverty voyeurism. Volunteers usually return home with heart-wrenching tales of the poverty they witnessed first-hand.  But does it really help anyone? One could argue that all it does is reaffirm the privilege of the volunteers themselves. How many return to the communities that they visit and work towards long-term solutions to the many problems they saw? Of the volunteers that do return and start their own initiatives, the question remains as to whether or not they even should; as any kind of sustainable development should ideally be led by the poor themselves.

Essentially, the majority of us have never experienced poverty, and hopefully we never will. Is there really any benefit in trying to sympathise with those that do. Sympathy is essentially a form of pity, and there is very little that pity can do. Perhaps instead we should try more to empathise, rather than sympathise. By empathising, we gain a sense of understanding; an understanding of the multidimensional complexities of the lives of the poor, our similarities, and most importantly the direct causes of poverty and suffering in the world.  What do you think? Is poverty porn a necessary evil in order to gain donations? Or is it an unethical practice that you would like to see less of? If so, then what is the solution to raising awareness about poverty in a way that is ethical and effective? I want to end this post with this satirical, yet thought-provoking video. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbqA6o8_WC0

By Deena Abdo (Dubai Campus)

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3 thoughts on “What’s wrong with this picture? Poverty Porn & Voluntourism

  1. In my opinion you are quite right according to your blog that you posted. The West has been “helping” Africa since after the Second World and yet still they claim that they are helping the continent. My question is how long will you be helping someone from age 1-60 years and not realizing any progress on what you are helping for and yet still you are continuing doing it? Does that means the money you claim you are helping these people comes free from the air or are there trees where you can just pick it and give it free? I believe if these Western countries were not benefiting from the claim aid they are dishing to this continent they would have stopped. As human beings, no one would like to help or give aid without seeing any difference to what s/h had given. The main purpose of doing business is to realize profit but if that business is running at a loss you need to change strategy and try to make it profitable in the near future.
    If these Westerns countries truly mean good and progress for the continent, they should have first cancelled all the debt owed by the continent and try to share technology and work as partnerships not like master and servant. Common sense tells us that no master will be happy for his servant to be come independent and able to do things by him/herself forever. In that regard the master can do everything in his power for that servant in the remain the same situation throughout his life in order to get control over him.
    Thus, most of the pictures these NGOs show on TV or the Newspapers are old ones which probably has taken some decades to capture the minds of the new generation.This process of helping Africa has become now a corporate business to amass wealth without paying any tax to governments in the name of the “poor”.

    David Bah

  2. Thank you for your post Deena it is very interesting and thought-provoking. Before reading your post I was not entirely familiar with the term poverty porn and what goes on within this industry, however, I have to disagree with you on the point that sympathy is not required because if no one had pity for the less fortunate why and how would these people gain assistance or support. The fact that sympathy exists is a sign that people have not become completely selfish, stone hearted individuals who believe in the theory that poor people are poor and they should pull themselves out of poverty on their own. I totally agree with you that people have become desensitised to images of poverty in Africa although we cannot deny the fact that poverty still exists on an immense scale, despite the fact that Africa is a highly resource rich country. Maybe corruption or poor state regulations should be the more significant factors to blame?

    As for voluntourism, I think it is vital that individuals from developed countries or organisations visit impoverished communities, do first hand research and gain a close insight of what poverty is for these individuals. The least it does is spread awareness; volunteers do not directly profit by visiting such societies instead their experience and knowledge can contribute to improving strategies and benefiting conditions for the less privileged.

    Shaafi Sayed

  3. Thank you both for your comments, I think poverty porn is a very interesting topic and it’s great to have a discussion on this issue.

    My point regarding sympathy versus empathy is that we should not help others purely out of a sense of pity – as there is often a patronising element and false sense of superiority that stems from pity. The desire to help people in developing countries should instead come from a sense of moral duty and obligation, as human beings. We need to work on understanding the poor, rather than looking at them as ‘other’ – as though they are social experiments to ‘test out’ different development models that are formulated in the West by people who have never experienced poverty. Instead we should focus on understanding and tackling the root causes of poverty, David correctly pointed out that debt is one of the major causes.

    As for your point regarding poverty being an issue in Africa – yes it most definitely is an problem, no one has claimed that it is not a problem and my post is most definitely not suggesting otherwise (refer to my point regarding the ‘single story’ and its damaging impact).

    Lastly, please refer to my previous blog post regarding the negative impacts of voluntourism. There is an extensive amount of research that indicates voluntourism does more harm than good. Not only can it negatively impact local economies, exploit local people and children – there is an extremely contemptuous element to privileged youth/individuals entering impoverished communities uninvited. To think that help can only be external and from Western countries/individuals, demonstrates a case of mental colonisation. By this I mean the belief that ‘the West knows best’. (FYI…they don’t!)

    The truth is that each society is unique, and what works in one country might not work in another. Hence, I see no benefit in sending privileged youth from the West who usually know very little about the history, culture, political structure and socio-economics of the countries they visit to supposedly
    ‘help’. In order for development to be sustainable it must be locally-led and locally-driven.

    This does not relate to professional individuals such as trained doctors and teachers who have the concrete skills to help. The existence of poverty in many developing countries is partly due to the actions of the West, so they do have some obligation in assisting. (However, any type of international volunteering should be on LOCAL projects, in the sense that they are driven by the community itself. Anything else runs the risk of being patronising and misguided due to a lack of understanding.)

    Instead, this post was referring more so to individuals who partake in voluntourism on fairly selfish terms – to broaden their own perspectives. Entering a poor community when you have very little knowledge and understanding of that community (not even a basic understanding of the language), is arguably disrespectful and counterproductive. All it does is patronize and undermine the local people. Why send a group of young volunteers to a Kenyan village to dig a well? I’m pretty sure they’ve been digging wells since before the volunteers were born!

    Deena Abdo

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