We are bombarded daily with tragic images from far-away lands of starving children with delineated ribs, desperate adults, and ramshackle communities promoted by charities who assure us that we can save a life or change the world by donating $10. This is what is referred to as ‘poverty porn’: extreme images of the world’s worst-case scenarios, used to elicit a strong reaction from developed world consumers.
While well-intended and often effective, this technique has recently come under heavy criticism. Not only for its exploitative nature, but for the short-term impact of its goals and also for the more insidious side effect of demeaning the very subjects it claims to assist.
There are a number of sociological problems related to a proliferation of such images: the ‘othering’ of different communities; the fostering of a system where the worse a story is, the more likely it is to be successful (which has led to the now infamous orphanage scams in developing countries, where children are sometimes taken from their parents and put in deliberately squalid conditions to raise money from tourists), and the neo-colonialist claiming of control over another’s image. The resultant troubling perception seems to be that the poor are powerless or unable to work towards their own good.
It has been proven time and time again that sustainable development begins not with charity, but with empowerment of communities. The problem with the images and stories that have become such a central part of fundraising nowadays is that it removes all capability and responsibility from the communities themselves, which has psychological impact on both the donors and the recipients. The solution becomes more about how much the developing world can give – making poverty seem like an endless and heavy burden – rather than how much the developed world can foster development.
Social media is a rapidly developing and is an ever-changing tool, which is bringing new voice to the previously voiceless. One only has to think of the Egyptian revolution to see how accessibility to even the most basic micro-blogging sites can facilitate a powerful control over the dissemination of information. After the Kony video, Ugandans took to the internet to present their grievances with the presentation of the facts, offering their own experiences. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presented at TED, speaking of the importance of a group having control over their own story, and how this is an underused and key component of fostering independence and autonomy.
Social media is still too new to properly harness, yet its growing use in nations all over the world, and its potential as a tool for empowerment of underrepresented communities worldwide should not be ignored.
– Farahnaz Mohammed