Poverty porn, Scandinavian chocolate cake edition

From the Guardian:

Sweden’s minister of culture has been accused of racism after cutting a cake depicting a naked black woman.

Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth was taking part in an event at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, the capital’s museum of modern art and home to works by Picasso and Dalí. She was invited to cut the cake, an art installation meant to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. She began, as instructed, by taking a chunk from the cake’s “clitoris”.

The artist, Makode Aj Linde, who created the installation for World Art Day on 15 April, took part in the cake-cutting, with his blackened face and head sticking up next to the cake’s stomach and arms. The cakes “insides” were a gruesome red. A video shows him screaming loudly every time a visitor hacks off another slice of the cake.

The Swedes seem to have mastered the art of combining blackface*, torso-shaped cake design and cringe-worthy cake-slicing into one, massive chocolaty faux pax. Bravo, Ms. Liljeroth, bravo.

Note: Despite being black himself, it appears that Makode Linde went for full blackface anyway. 

Update: nice analysis of the situation and resulting photo by Johan Palme over at Africa is a Country, who suggests that this whole thing might have been staged to snap the photo.

Bono meet Russell

Perhaps a little too soon, Baobob/The Economist asserts that the Live Aid mentality has finally died:

 But those days of poverty porn at rock concerts (slo-mo famine on giant screens to accompany the music) have also drawn to a close. The thinking about poverty reduction in Africa is less weepy, with greater emphasis on transparency and technology. Innovative new players come from unexpected places, like BRAC, a Bangladeshi organisation. Win or lose, Mr Sach’s bid for the World Bank marks the end of the Live Aid era.

As we’re all aware, the weepiness has returned in full force in the form of Kony 2012.

I don’t have much new to add on this. However, I’m astonished by how strong and well-covered the push-back has been, with most major news outlets taking the time to describe the problems with Invisible Children’s approach.

It might even be possible that the net impact of this whole thing is positive – while we’re always going to be wary about the unchecked desire to do good, the push back might have been enough to inform at least some of the previously-ignorant. We might reach a moment where we all are secretly happy this thing happened, even though we’ll still need to condemn it in order to keep the ignorance in check.

Is your mobile phone rape free?

I wish I could have made that title up – but I didn’t. That was Save the Congo, who basically just directly equated cell phone purchases to rape. QED.

And they did this how? Through shock and awe: `Unwatchable‘ is a film they just released in which a gang of British soldiers attacks an upper-class white family in the Cotswolds. Young women are raped. Men are shot. Gonads are severed and fed to survivors.

No, this isn’t a second-rate Michael Haneke knockoff, but it feels like it. It’s pretty awful, and apparently based on a true story. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that mobile phones are the main drivers of rape in the DRC or that kneejerk legislation like the Dodd-Frank bill makes sense. We need intelligent discussion to work our way through these problems – I don’t see any room for shock tactics like this.

People who approach debate like this are absolute nutters and should be kept as far away from the discourse as possible.

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Haneke

Extreme Third World Farmer Development Economist Challenge

As academics, aid workers, bloggers and concerned citizens, we all care about the plight of the poor rural farmer. From those who want to douse her with fertilizer to those who’d like to just get her a job at McDonald’s, we also all seem to know what is best way forward.

It’s time to put that knowledge to test. I propose a contest where you step into the shoes of the rural farmer and see how well your assumptions play out against a backdrop of immense scarcity and uncertainty. No, this isn’t some kind of poverty immersion exercise – that would be far too easy. This is simulation.

Unfortunately the Aid Thoughts virtual reality room is currently out of order, so in lieu of something remotely realistic we must turn to our second best option: Third World Farmer.

The unfortunately-titled TWF is an “African farmer simulator” designed to teach people about the difficulties of rural life in developing countries. You are tasked with growing crops, earning money, dealing with the myriad of shocks that come your way, and slowly building up your family’s health and human capital, as well as breaking out of poverty.

TWF isn’t a perfect game (see my original review here) – it is rife with African stereotypes (of the four horsemen variety) and I have a feeling that it hits you over the head a little too often with negative shocks to get its point across, rather than reflect reality. You might find some of the options the game considers a failure to be anything but, such as the option to move to the city for a much higher income.

Despite this – it’s the best we have, and I can think of no better chance, short of an actual cage match, for the experts of the world, bloggers, and development-savvy folk everywhere to go head-to-head.

HOW THE CONTEST WORKS:

  1. Go to the Third World Farmer website here.
  2. If you haven’t played it before, give the game a try. You get one play through to get a feel for it, no more.
  3. When you’re ready, begin your game. Once you’ve started, there’s no turning back.
  4. Your game is over when either your farm ceases to exist (usually for negative reasons) or you win the game by buying every available item for purchase (these things range from poultry to crop insurance).
  5. Once the game is over, record your score (take a screenshot using your printscreen key) and your total number of turns and send it to me at matt@aidthoughts.org.
  6. On top of the score, I will be recording results for your own personal human development index result, so I will also be needing:
    1. The average educational attainment of the people living on your farm (education)
    2. The number of living household members, including the age-at-death of any who passed away (life expectancy)
    3. The per capita income of the household in the final turn (income)
  7. As I get your scores, I will create a scoreboard on this website with a ranking, both for high scores and for HDI results.
  8. A month from now, on May 11th, I will close the competition. The winner with the highest score will receive a special Aid Thoughts edition of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid, scrawled with critical notes and expletives by Ranil and myself. Now you too can experience the same mind-numbing frustration we felt upon reading it.
  9. The winner with the highest human development index will receive  one full month free of snark or sarcastic criticism from Aid Thoughts.

The prize: Dead Aid, Aid Thoughts annotated edition

Is this contest tasteless, patronizing and a little demeaning? Probably – but here at Aid Thoughts we deal with all all three. So, boot up you laptops, load up Toto’s ‘Africa‘ on iTunes, and start planting those crops.

The lost pact to end poverty porn

As early as 1994, at the start of the genocide in Rwanda, several of the world’s largest aid organizations signed on to a code of conduct intended to govern communication with the press and the public. It was compiled by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). Signatories to the code agreed that in their briefings, publicity and advertising they would acknowledge victims of disasters to be “dignified human beings, not hopeless objects.

That’s Linda Polman in her book on humanitarian aid, The Crisis Caravan (War Games in the UK). Expect a review sometime in the near future.

The list of signatories to that code are here, comprising nearly 500 NGOS, including many organizations we’re familiar with today (like MSF). It’s disheartening, but not surprising, that so many signatories went on to ignore this part of the code – I fear the fundraising incentives are a little too strong for this one.

Thoughts on the definition of poverty porn

While I frequently grumble at examples of poverty porn on this blog, I have to admit that my characterization sometimes appears arbitrary. At the end of the day, such designations are subjective – my aim has just been to convince others that my subjective beliefs are correct.

One of the images that bothered me a few weeks ago was this one attached to a Guardian article arguing that aid critics are wrong:

One could perceive poverty porn as being a distinct artistic criticism. Imagine flipping through all of the shots this photographer took. There would have been multiple photos of this same boy, looking slightly different in each one. In some he might not quite have been gazing up the way he is, or holding the pot out at the same time. When viewed alongside all these alternate images, would the above constitute poverty porn?

I don’t think it would – I think the context of the photo’s viewing matters, especially when the photo is used to enhance an argument or induce behaviour in the viewer. I responded strongly to this photo, not just because it existed, but because it was attached to an article arguing for more aid. Its selection, out of what probably are dozens of photos of the same child, indicates a desire to portray him in a way that will help convince the viewer that the argument is correct. Some have argued that photos like these accurately reflect what’s happening on the ground – but remember that there are dozens of photos that do this, but this one was chosen because it would be the most powerful.

Contrast the photo above with this advertisement I got in the mail last week:

Fight that urge to pull out your wallets or go off and adopt a kitten. There has been some photoshopping, and the message “they can’t survive without our help” is more explicit, but while the attempt to manipulate the viewer is more obvious here, it is the same type of manipulation that I believe underlies poverty porn.

Yet I am more upset by the image of the boy in Haiti, because it is a person’s image being exploited for another purpose (even if it arguably serves him in the end). Adorable kittens have somewhat less agency in this world.

There is no central argument to this post – just sketching some thoughts. Your thoughts are always welcome.

Worth watching: Africa United


I must admit, I went into the showing of Africa United with a fair amount of trepidation. A film about Rwandan children helmed by a white British director, traveling across the continent. What could possibly go wrong? Yet I was pleasantly surprised – Africa United takes two genres I’m pretty suspicious of, the `cute rapscallions go on an impossible journey to fulfill their dream’ and `British film about Africa,’ and somehow, for the most part, makes it work.

The premise is that Fabrice, a middle-upper class Rwandan with a gift for football and his impoverished `manager’, the earnest Dudu, decide to try and get Fabrice into the opening ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in Joburg. Due to a series of mishaps, they end up in the DRC, where they decide to try and make the trip cross-country, eventually joining up with a Congolese child-soldier and a young woman forced into prostitution.

It sounds pretty insufferable, but, the director Deborah Gardner-Patterson touches upon these popular issues mostly with care and nuance. The most impressive hurdle is the movie’s ability to forgo addressing the genocide – something most mainstream films about Rwanda seem compelled to do. The most mention it gets is as part of an elaborate (animated) tale which Dudu constructs as they travel.

There are some exceptions – the range of topics at hand (war, the sex trade, a fair amount about HIV/AIDS) sometimes makes Africa United feel, as The Guardian pointed out, a bit like a Unicef commercial (at one point one of the children asks the other, “Are you a sex worker?”). Also, probably to keep the film friendly for international markets, everybody, and I mean everybody, in this film speaks perfect English – from the militia members in the DRC to the random villagers in Zambia. The editing and pacing are, at times, a little frenzied – the characters aren’t allowed to fully soak in, which might be for the better.

Most importantly – this film is completely devoid of anything approaching poverty porn. The children are portrayed as independent, bright and capable. The environments they find themselves in feel pretty authentic, but the film never lingers on the poverty that some of them face, other than what is necessary to set the scene. Dudu and his sister live in a shack and don’t have a lot to eat, but this poverty acts as part of the setting, not as a character. Aside from the Unicef-inspired bits, this story could have been told anywhere else in the world – but Africa United somehow makes it a little more special, all while avoiding the pitfalls of portraying the continent as war-torn, wild and unknowable.

Go check it out – and let me know what you think.

Guardians of poverty porn

Oh come on, Guardian. You run a somewhat-reasonable rebuttal by Claire Melamed of the Overseas Development Institute to the recent attacks on increases in UK ODA, but then you feel the need to top it off with this photo:

Let’s see how many boxes this checks:

  • Very cute, if impoverished, Haitian child? Check
  • No shirt? Check
  • Other cute, impoverished children, for context? Check
  • Longing gazes upward (where you look down upon them and consider yourself gracious and merciful donor). Check
  • Hands outstretched to receive help. Check

These are real children, ones that are obviously in need of help, but you do them a disservice when you exploit them in this way to make your arguments.