Poverty Porn – Changing the Narrative

‘Poverty porn’ is a term used to refer to the exploitation of the poor by the media.

When it comes to aiding third world countries there is so often this idea of the ‘white hero’ and the ‘exotic other’.

 

The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund created the above video. A comedic and enlightening sketch on the way in which privileged people impose themselves as a ‘white hero’ able to abolish poverty and hunger and all the rest. Their campaign takes an alternate approach, showing how stereotypes can harm dignity. “Hunger and poverty is ugly, and it calls for action. However, we need to create engagement built on knowledge, not stereotypes.” They believe that the way in which third-world countries are shown often creates apathy rather than action.

African countries are often exploited by people who want to appear charitable to boost their own image. We constantly see this when celebrities visit countries in need of aid for campaigns like Comic Relief. Whilst it raises money that is desperately needed, a lot of the Comic Relief videos harm dignity through the stereotypes they show. The major issue with a lot of Comic Relief videos is that they focus on the suffering of the celebrities, appearing to place greater significance on their experience of viewing poverty rather than the people who are actually impacted.

Some people might argue that whether or not the poor are being exploited at least it’s fundraising money. However, a lot of the time places that fundraise, such as orphanages, are run more like businesses that market to tourists rather than focusing on helping the children develop.

There is no question that this sort of advertising works as a method of getting the word out to a public that may, otherwise, ignore the problem. However, in the long run, it does not encourage people to think about the systematic challenges of ending extreme poverty. The use of these inflammatory images makes it difficult for the wider community to understand the reality of the issues surrounding extreme poverty. NGOs who portray the world’s most disadvantaged in such a manipulated light are reinforcing a crude “us and them” divide to the wider public, namely, that “they” are entirely and utterly dependent on “us”. (Cowdroy, 2010)

In a Ted Talk viewed more than 11 million times Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, talks about the concept of a ‘single story’. She discusses her well-off life in Nigeria and the prejudiced disposition with which she was treated when she moved to the US because of the single story people are presented with of Africa. Often thought of as one country, the images we most often see of Africa are safaris, exotic animals, senseless wars and people dying of hunger and AIDS. It is shown as a place full of poor and helpless people in need of our aid, when in reality that is only a small part of the continent that is Africa.

“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….
Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and humanise. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” (Adichie, 2009)

Adichie’s novels explore her Nigerian culture, breaking the stereotype that is often presented in the west.

It is integral for the dominant narrative of poverty to change. Comic Relief’s videos all focus on the white hero’s response to poverty and how what they witness affects them. It is the main way in which people of the West relate to the developing world. Whilst there has been support to reverse poverty and inequality, encourage education and better health in developing countries a shift in narrative is necessary.

For example, a organisation called The Narrative Project has done research to identify the ways in which global development storytelling can adjusted to convey success stories and foster a more positive outlook amongst the public about third world countries.


 

References:

Adichie, C., 2009. The Danger of a Single Story. Available at: <http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story&gt; [Accessed 28 Mar. 2017].

Cowdroy, J., 2010. Poverty Porn. [online] Mamamia. Available at: <http://www.mamamia.com.au/are-these-images-made-to-pull-at-your-purse-strings/&gt; [Accessed 28 Mar. 2017].

SAIH Norway, 2013. Let’s save Africa! – Gone wrong. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbqA6o8_WC0&gt; [Accessed 30 Mar. 2017].

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